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Remote SCOTUS Arguments Produce Some Notable 2020 Moments

Dec. 28, 2020, 9:45 AM

Covid-19 forced the Supreme Court to go remote and offered the public a rare chance to hear real-time arguments via live-streamed audio.

Listeners heard historic arguments on presidential power, rare questions from Justice Clarence Thomas, as well as what sounded like a flushing toilet, a reminder that, sometimes at least, the justices are just like us.

Here are some notable moments from the year in Remote SCOTUS.

Historic Arguments

High court hearings over President Donald Trump’s attempt to keep his financial records from congressional and prosecutorial scrutiny called to mind former President Richard Nixon’s attempt to shield evidence from view in the 1970s.

This time around, the public could listen in real time as the justices parsed the president’s claims over the phone in May, the month that kicked off the court’s live-audio sessions.

It’s a “fundamental precept of our constitutional order that a president isn’t above the law,” Justice Elena Kagan told one of Trump’s lawyers for all to hear.

The court ruled for the prosecution in Trump v. Vance and for the president in Trump v. Mazars. Both decisions both served to keep Trump’s financial records private, at least in the short term.

Thomas Speaks

Justice Thomas, who usually asks the fewest questions of lawyers during arguments, became more talkative thanks to a more structured format necessitated by the pandemic.

Bucking the usual in-court free-for-all, which Thomas has said he can do without, the justices took turns questioning the lawyers in order of seniority after Chief Justice John Roberts had his turn.

That gave the public a chance early in each case to hear from Thomas, the court’s longest-serving justice. He even slipped in a Lord of the Rings reference during arguments over the Electoral College.

The Flush

We can’t un-hear it.

Arguments over robocalls were famously interrupted by what sounded like a toilet flushing.

Though we may never know the culprit, a thorough Slate investigation pointed to Justice Stephen Breyer.

New Jams

The new format has brought its own challenges.

The freewheeling sessions of old were overtaken by different types of awkward traffic jams.

Memorial Microphone

The biggest Supreme Court news of the year was the death of Ruth Bader Ginsburg on Sept. 18, shortly before the justices began their new term.

Remote arguments meant the public couldn’t see the traditional memorial drapery over Ginsburg’s chair in the courtroom.

But the live-audio format gave the chief justice the ability to say a few words for all to hear when the court kicked things off in October.

“Justice Ginsburg’s contributions as advocate, jurist, and citizen are immeasurable,” Roberts said. “We at the court will remember her as a dear friend and a treasured colleague.”

—With assistance from David Schultz

To contact the reporter on this story: Jordan S. Rubin in Washington at jrubin@bloomberglaw.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: John Crawley at sstern@bloomberglaw.com; Tom P. Taylor at jcrawley@bloomberglaw.com

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