The Supreme Court takes a virtual turn amid COVID-19 crisis


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The Supreme Court, which is now holding virtual court hearings for the first time in history.

Alex Martinez, News Editor

Due to social distancing requirements, the Supreme Court publicly stated plans to hear some oral arguments virtually in May after fully closing its building and postponing cases as a precaution to the COVID-19 outbreak. This decision, made on April 13, was a bold one as the courts try to continue carrying out their business. The drastic nature of the COVID-19 outbreak forced people across the world to change their lives and how they do business, and the Supreme Court adapted to these restricting and unprecedented circumstances by embracing technology as a means of communication and continuing work through it.

The cases discussed virtually will be conducted via teleconference, which is a conference with participants in various locations linked by in this case, a telephone call. The issues being discussed are important and should not be taken lightly, making the lawyers’ jobs all the more complicated. In unprecedented situations like this, they are left unsure as to how to address and act in this situation, seeing that no lawyer ever before had to argue a case and do their job without being in the confines of a courtroom and instead being on the phone. Lawyers are forced to adjust, which is a precarious situation in itself. Normally, there is an established norm for how cases unfold, how to dress, how to act. Taking away the comfort of a courtroom makes everyone’s job harder, the Supreme Court Justices, the lawyers and everyone else involved.

“I’m trying to figure out: Do you stand up? Do you sit down? Do you get a podium?” Jay Sekulow, an attorney for the president and a veteran Supreme Court advocate, said.

Disregarding the challenges concerning the technology involved in setting the teleconferences up, the ability for some to appear on the conference without being undisturbed is another substantial roadblock.

“I will not be in a place where my kids can ask me questions at the same time the justices are. That already happens in conference calls,” Eric Rassbach, a lawyer at the nonprofit Becket, that will argue in a religious freedom case next month, said.

The more notable of these disputes being three high-profile cases over if President Trump’s tax returns and financial records can be rightfully kept from congressional and state investigators and key Electoral College cases, addressing if electors’ vote may differ from their state’s popular vote. The Justices are currently weighing an appeal from abortion providers over an order signed by Texas Governor Greg Abbot to essentially ban all of these procedures in an effort to conserve medical supplies. All in all, the court has ten arguments scheduled for the first two weeks of May, although specific dates for each case has yet to have been publicly determined.

In all the years of the Supreme Court’s operation, never has there been the substitution of in-person cases with alternate means of communication. In the 18 century, Yellow fever outbreaks forced long-term postponing of Supreme Court cases, and in a similar fashion, a 1918 Spanish-flu epidemic forced a long pushback of Supreme Court cases. The switch to technological communication, while unprecedented, was an efficient choice. Seeing that modern-day American society relies heavily on technology not only as a means of communication, but other aspects of lifestyle, the change was done as best as possible as to not ruin the Supreme Court’s long-term schedule.

“In keeping with public health guidance in response to COVID-19, the Justices and counsel will all participate remotely,” an announcement to the public said.

It also mentioned that the audio of all the cases will be provided to the news media, and that more information concerning that will be announced soon.

The close-quarters nature of Supreme Court cases and hearings warranted a quick rescheduling of business, especially since six of the nine Supreme Court Justices are 65 years old or older and public health officials warn that COVID-19 disproportionately targets those who are older.

Despite how these cases end up happening, one thing is certain: as a country,  everyone is navigating uncharted waters, and history is being made.