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Justices Conference In Person For First Time Since Pandemic (1)

March 19, 2021, 5:04 PMUpdated: March 19, 2021, 7:04 PM

Most U.S. Supreme Court justices met in person for their private conference Friday, according to spokeswoman Kathy Arberg.

The justices have been working remotely—including hearing oral arguments over the phone—since March 2020 due to the coronavirus.

All but Justice Stephen Breyer returned to the courthouse in October 2020 for Justice Amy Coney Barrett’s swearing-in ceremony. But this is the first time the justices have met to conduct business since going remote.

The Supreme Court declined to comment further but said in an email that at least one justice participated remotely.

“The change in practice today is in keeping with recently released CDC guidelines regarding indoor gatherings of fully vaccinated people,” Arberg wrote.

The justices previously announced that all the justices have been fully vaccinated.

The court will still meet remotely for its March and April argument sittings.

Remote Shortcomings

Some justices have sounded frustrated by the format adopted by the court to conduct arguments remotely.

Justice Samuel Alito in particular seems constrained by the short amount of time allotted to each justices to ask questions—two minutes per advocate.

And while Justice Stephen Breyer said in a January article that setup can force the justices to focus more on the questions and answers, he also lamented the lack of eye contact.

Advocates who have argued remotely at the court have said it can be difficult to know if you are answering the justices’ questions without being able to read their body language.

Livestreaming

Despite the shortcomings, the remote arguments are a win for transparency advocates who have long urged the court to make its proceedings more accessible to the public. Prior to the pandemic, the justices didn’t release audio until the Friday after an argument—between two and four days later.

The remote arguments are currently being livestreamed to the public for the first time in the court’s 230-year history.

That’s put pressure on the court to continue to open up the courtroom after the pandemic. Sens. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) and Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) have cited the livestreaming as evidence to support their bill (S. 818) to put cameras in the courtroom—something the justices themselves say would be bad for the court.

The Court has not indicated whether it intends to continue to livestream once it is able to conduct in-person proceedings again.

(Updates with information on remote arguments.)

To contact the reporter on this story: Kimberly Strawbridge Robinson in Washington at krobinson@bloomberglaw.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Seth Stern at sstern@bloomberglaw.com; John Crawley at jcrawley@bloomberglaw.com

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