Supreme Court Live Streams Arguments For First Time Ever

The coronavirus is forcing the U.S. Supreme Court to do something it's never done before: broadcast oral arguments live.

While institutions around the world have adapted to teleconferencing, the nation’s highest court is steeped in tradition and rules that rarely change. “The Supreme Court has always resisted doing anything that is live, other than the in-person attendance at their arguments, which is only possible for a couple hundred people at a time,” says UC Hastings law professor Rory Little, a former Supreme Court clerk. 

The court convened Monday morning at 7 a.m. after postponing two months worth of oral arguments. The court will near 10 cases over six days this month, beginning with a relatively obscure case over trademarking generic terms. At issue was the question of whether the travel website can trademark its name with the addition of “.com”.

More high-profile cases will be heard over the next two weeks, including one relating to President Donald Trump’s effort to shield his financial records and whether presidential electors are bound to cast their votes for the candidate who wins the popular vote in their state.

The experiment is throwing a wrench in some of the court’s normal rules and procedures, such as a rules preventing attorneys from passing notes to each other.

“Of course today who knows? There’ll be 10 people sitting in a conference room all scribbling notes to each other. We really don’t know how they’ll do it,” says Little.

Each lawyer had two minutes to make their opening statements, after which the justices took turns answering questions in order of seniority. Normally the justices ask questions as they arise, often in rapid fire. This change in format may by why Justice Clarence Thomas, who sometimes goes years without asking a question in any case, asked his first question in over a year.

“If they go back to in person arguments say, in October - which is what they hope to do - will they go back to not having real time audio?” asked Little. If this goes well over the next two weeks, I think they’ll have to stick to it.”