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Supreme Court hears arguments in 2 prominent cases as it adapts to remote proceedings

A closely divided U.S. Supreme Court considered two cases Wednesday: one on the future of exceptions to a birth control mandate in the Affordable Care Act, and another challenging a federal law banning robocalls. John Yang reports on the details of the arguments brought before the justices -- and the challenges of the Court’s operating remotely.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    A closely divided Supreme Court considered two cases today. The first was on the future of exceptions to a birth control mandate in the Affordable Care Act, the second a challenge to a federal law banning robo-calls.

    John Yang walks us through the arguments on both sides and the challenges that can come with doing them remotely.

  • John Yang:

    Day three of socially distanced Supreme Court arguments brought a big dispute over whether the Trump administration may allow some employers to limit women's access to free birth control under the Affordable Care Act.

    An order of nuns called the Little Sisters of the Poor is joining the administration to defend federal rules expanding the religious exemption.

    This exchange between Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, speaking from a Baltimore hospital room, where she's being treated for a gallbladder condition, and solicitor Noel Francisco got to the core of the issue.

  • Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg:

    So, you have just tossed entirely to the wind what Congress thought was essential, that is, that women be provided these service — these services with no hassle, no cost to them.

    Instead, you are shifting the employers' religious beliefs, the cost of that, onto the employees who do not share those religious beliefs.

  • Solicitor General Noel Francisco:

    Yes, respectfully, Your Honor, I think I would disagree with the premise of your question, because there's nothing in the ACA that requires contraceptive coverage.

    Rather, it delegated to the agencies the discretion to decide whether or not to cover its in the first place, and we think that that also includes the discretion to require that most employers provide it, but not the small number who have sincere conscientious objections.

  • John Yang:

    Marcia Coyle of "The National Law Journal":

  • Marcia Coyle:

    I don't think anyone questions the genuineness of the religious beliefs of the religious nonprofits, and they want very much to be completely free of any kind of role in providing contraceptive health insurance.

    The estimate of women — number of women who would lose that coverage is between 75,000 and 125,000, which is a substantial impact.

  • John Yang:

    This is the third time this issue has come before the justices.

  • Marcia Coyle:

    And today during the argument, there was a certain amount of frustration, I think, expressed by several the justices.

    The chief justice himself said at one point that he felt that neither side wants to make the accommodations that have been existing in the law for some time work.

  • John Yang:

    For nearly three hours, the nine justices heard arguments on this case and another on whether federal restrictions on robo-calls to cell phones violate the First Amendment.

    Like millions of Americans, the justices are adjusting to working remotely. Justice Stephen Breyer had some phone trouble during the robo-call argument.

  • Justice Stephen Breyer:

    Thank you. I'm sorry. The telephone started to ring, and it cut me off the call, and I don't think it was a robo-call.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Justice Stephen Breyer:

    And we got it straightened out.

  • Chief Justice John Roberts:

    Justice Sotomayor?

  • John Yang:

    More than once earlier this week, Justice Sonia Sotomayor had trouble unmuting.

  • Chief Justice John Roberts:

    Justice Sotomayor.

  • Justice Sonia Sotomayor:

    I am sorry, Chief. Did it again.

  • John Yang:

    For lawyer Lisa Blatt, her arguments to the justices were unlike any other.

    Instead of the marble column courtroom, she was at home, among her spectators, two dogs.

  • Lisa Blatt:

    I think I spent about two days getting the dining room set up to look like as much, as I could, the courtroom to have a podium and where the briefs would sit and where my co-counsel would sit and my timekeeper, my daughter, would sit.

    My husband also was bouncer, so he was in charge of making sure that everyone in the neighborhood was cleared away.

  • John Yang:

    One surprise from the new format, frequent questions from Justice Clarence Thomas, who has, at time, gone years without speaking.

  • Lisa Blatt:

    In 40 arguments, I have never gotten a question from Justice Thomas. And so to have one from Justice Thomas to come in 2020 was a career highlight.

    So, that's the only perk, was getting to hear him. And he's on fire. He's absolutely on fire in every argument.

  • John Yang:

    For Pennsylvania Deputy Attorney General Michael Fischer, on the other hand, today marked his first Supreme Court argument ever.

  • Michael Fischer:

    I was worried that it would — you know, that, in the lead-up, it wouldn't quite feel the same because I wouldn't be going to the Supreme Court.

    But that, frankly, didn't happen at all. And it felt, you know, more conversational in some ways.

  • John Yang:

    When the justices dial in for oral arguments next week, they will hear the politically charged dispute over subpoenas for President Trump's financial records.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm John Yang.

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