The U.S. Supreme Court is closed to the public due to coronavirus concerns, but the closure could ironically increase court access in some ways, if the justices heed the latest calls to live-stream arguments.
The high court should “make alternative arrangements in order to ensure that the public has full transparency into the Court’s dealings,” a coalition of nearly a dozen progressive interest groups, including the court-focused Demand Justice, said in a statement on Friday.
“In order to ensure full transparency and maintain trust from the public,” the groups said, “the Supreme Court must make its oral arguments available to the public via live audio and video, at least until it can reopen its doors to the public.”
The court announced Thursday that it’s closed to the public “until further notice” but is still open for “official business.” President Trump on Friday afternoon declared a national emergency over the pandemic.
The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press on Friday likewise called for live-streaming against the backdrop of the global pandemic. “The public has a First Amendment right to know what’s happening in its courts,” said executive director Bruce Brown.
“When the public is shut out, it erodes public trust in the judicial system,” Brown said. “In times of crisis, public access to accurate information about all three branches of government is absolutely essential. The public must not be left in the dark when it comes to the work of courts, particularly the U.S. Supreme Court, where justices frequently consider cases that affect the lives of all Americans.”
The court’s public information office didn’t immediately answer questions Friday as to whether the court plans to live-stream or make any other special arrangements for the upcoming two-week argument session set to start March 23.
Friday’s calls for transparency are the latest in a growing drumbeat from the public demanding that the notoriously cloistered institution more widely share its work with the American people. The justices have steadily resisted such efforts over the years.
The transparency calls follow a March 9 letter from U.S. Rep. Mike Quigley (D-Ill.) to Chief Justice John Roberts, imploring the chief to “keep pace with the times” by allowing real time audio and video access to high court proceedings. Quigley cosponsors a recent House bill that would require access. It’s awaiting committee action.
As it is now, the court releases same day transcripts and audio at the end of argument weeks. When it’s open to the public, courtroom seating “is limited and on a first-come, first-seated basis,” the court notes in its visitor’s guide to oral argument.
For closely-watched cases, lines can snake around the building for days. Several federal appeals courts have started live-streaming arguments in their own courts.
It’s “especially important” to stream arguments, the progressive groups said, “given the Court’s schedule for the next two months, which includes oral arguments in cases regarding the President’s tax returns and financial records,” referring to scheduled March 31 arguments over subpoenas into President Trump’s financial records.
The other groups on the statement are Center for Popular Democracy, Indivisible, NARAL Pro-Choice America, National Action Network, National Partnership for Women and Families, National Women’s Law Center, People for the American Way, Planned Parenthood Action Fund, Progressive Turnout Project, and Revolving Door Project.
Whether the cautious court heeds any of these transparency calls remains to be seen. But given its traditionally incremental approach, audio seems a more likely contender than video.
The court should “at a minimum permit the public to listen to a live-stream of argument audio from its website,” watchdog group Fix the Court‘s executive director Gabe Roth said on Thursday following the court’s closure announcement.
“We believe the Court already has this capacity,” Roth said, “as it streamed a Justice Scalia memorial service in Nov. 2016, and any technological gaps could be filled in by the nearby D.C. Circuit, which since Sept. 2018 has offered live online audio for all of its hearings.”
The high court at least has the wherewithal to publish same day audio. It’s done so 27 times, according to Fix the Court, most recently in another dispute involving President Trump: the 2018 argument over his travel ban.