Supreme Court resumes in-person arguments with abortion, guns, religious freedom on agenda

The Supreme Court returned to the courtroom Monday morning to hear its first oral arguments of the new term in-person. The cases set for argument this term could make it one of the most contentious in many years. Marcia Coyle, chief Washington correspondent for The National Law Journal, was one of the two dozen reporters in the courtroom and joins John Yang with more.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    The Supreme Court returned to the courtroom this morning to hear its first oral arguments of what looks to be an unusually consequential new term.

    John Yang has more.

  • John Yang:

    Judy, the Supreme Court term began this morning with familiar words from Chief Justice John Roberts.

    John Roberts, Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court: I have the honor to announce, on behalf of the court, that the October 2020 term of the Supreme Court of the United States is now closed. And the October 2021 term is now convened.

  • John Yang:

    But even though the justices, most of them, at least, were back in person, not much else seemed the same as when they were last in the courtroom in March 2020.

    And the cases set for argument this term could make it one of the most contentious in many years.

    Marcia Coyle, chief Washington correspondent for "The National Law Journal," was one of the two dozen of so reporters back in the courtroom this morning.

    And she is back in the she is back in the studio now.

    Marcia Coyle, "The National Law Journal": John, yes.

    (CROSSTALK)

  • John Yang:

    Marcia, what was it like? What was it like this morning?

  • Marcia Coyle:

    Well, you know, John, it was normal and it was abnormal.

    It was normal in the fact that there are were justices actually on the bench and they were hearing oral arguments. But it was abnormal.

    First days at the Supreme Court, you usually have a court building that's full of tourists on the lower level, lines of people who are waiting to get seats in the courtroom, lines of lawyers in suits waiting to be sworn into the bar, and the whole floor seems to be humming with talk, but, today, silence, a few Supreme Court police officers, a few staff people going in and out of offices, everybody masked.

    You go into the courtroom, and you see the press, those of us who attended, we were in the public seats, not in the usual press section, but in public seats, so that we could be spread out. And we were masked. And, also, the lawyers who were going to argue, they were limited to having only one other lawyer with them — before, you could have that table full of a team of lawyers — also masked.

    In the guest section for the justices, there really was hardly anybody there, but Justice Kennedy, retired Justice Kennedy, showed up in mask. Justin Breyer's wife was there in a mask. And Justice Barrett's husband showed up masked, and they were appropriately distanced.

    So it was strange. And then, during the arguments, as you mentioned, they were all on the bench except for Justice Kavanaugh, who last week was positive for COVID and is staying out of the arguments this week. But he was participated remotely. So you had this disembodied voice echoing in the courtroom when he did ask questions.

    The only justice who wore a mask was Justice Sotomayor, and I think because of being extra cautious, and since she is a diabetic.

    So, it was strange, and then it wasn't strange.

  • John Yang:

    And it is a big term for this court.

  • Marcia Coyle:

    It is.

  • John Yang:

    I mean, there is hardly a hot-button issue that they are not considering this term, including the most divisive of all, abortion.

  • Marcia Coyle:

    That's right, John.

    And who knows. There may be two abortion cases getting to the court. At least, the — there is still action in the lower courts on the Texas ban at six weeks of pregnancy. So, it is not only abortion. It's guns. They have taken up a case that could result in the expansion of gun rights under the Second Amendment.

    They have also taken two religion-related cases, one that deals with separation of church and state, one involving a death row inmate who wants to have his minister president in the death chamber, but praying and laying on hands. So, yes, you are absolutely right.

    And they could add to that easily. Pending is a big affirmative action case involving Harvard. The court continues to accept cases until about mid-January, and then, usually, they have about 70 for arguments. And, right now, I think the number is about 39. So, this term could grow yet.

  • John Yang:

    And in this first week, on Wednesday, there is a case involving state secrets.

    (CROSSTALK)

  • Marcia Coyle:

    That's right, John.

    In fact, it is one of two state secrets cases, which is really unusual. The court hasn't looked at the state secrets doctrine for a long time. The first case that is on Wednesday involves somebody who is now at Guantanamo Bay, but he is trying to get evidence, what we call discovery of evidence from former federal contractors who were involved in his interrogation when he was at a CIA black site in Poland.

    This detainee was seriously interrogated. In fact, they say he was suffered brain damage and the loss of one eye. The government is saying, you can't have that evidence because it will expose national security to danger.

    The court has got to take a look at that.

    And there is another case that involves three Muslim men from California, I believe, who feel that they were — that the FBI was surveilling them because of their religion. And, again, they want information and. The government has pleaded the state secrets doctrine. So, yes.

    And then there is also a very important death penalty — the Boston Marathon bomber, his sentence was invalidated by a federal appellate court because of errors at trial. And the justices have agreed to look at those trial errors and see if the lower court was correct in what it did.

    So, yes, it is a huge term, huge.

  • John Yang:

    In recent weeks, we have had a number of justices give public remarks, all sort of defending the court against a lot of criticism from the public.

    What is going on here?

  • Marcia Coyle:

    John, I think it's a reaction to the court's more recent rulings on emergency applications that come to it. It is generally known as the court's shadow docket.

    And those rulings have come in very controversial areas, such as the Texas abortion ban, the Biden administration's effort to extend the ban on evictions, as well as the remain-in-Mexico immigration policy of the Trump administration.

    And so I think the justices — some of the justices are voicing concerns about the court's — the impact of this criticism of the court and maybe also have an eye on the fact that this is a very controversial term. The public is going to be watching. And so they're worried what the public is going to react to the decisions that may be coming forward.

  • John Yang:

    Marcia Coyle of "The National Law Journal," who will be helping us keep an eye on the term ahead, thank you very much.

  • Marcia Coyle:

    My pleasure, John.

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