The high court announced Wednesday that the justices plan to return to their majestic, marble courtroom for arguments beginning in October, more than a year and a half after the in-person sessions were halted because of the coronavirus pandemic.
The justices had been hearing cases by phone during the pandemic but are currently on their summer break. Although oral arguments for October, November, and December were scheduled, the court stated that the Courtroom sessions would not be open to the public because of concerns for the safety and health of the public as well as Supreme Court employees.
The announcement stated that "The Court will continue monitoring public health guidance in determining programs."
According to the court, lawyers will no longer be able to argue over the telephone. However, the public will still be able hear the arguments live. Only the justices and essential court personnel, the lawyers in the case being argued, and the journalists covering the court daily will be permitted into the courtroom.
The court that returns from the bench is very different to the one that left.
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the court's most senior Liberal, was sitting on the bench in the neoclassical building just across from the U.S. Capitol. Conservatives had a narrow 5-4 majority. Ginsburg passed away in September 2020. Conservatives have a significant 6-3 majority thanks to Amy Coney Barrett, Ginsburg's replacement in the last days of Trump's administration.
Barrett is not allowed to participate in a traditional courtroom argument due to the pandemic. The justices are constantly asking questions of lawyers, jockeying for the right moment to ask their thoughts. The court heard more polite and predictable arguments over the telephone, with justices asking each other questions in order of seniority. This often meant that the arguments lasted longer than the scheduled time.
This meant lawyers and the public could hear from Justice Clarence Thomas, who was previously reticent, in every telephone argument. Thomas used to go years without speaking in arguments. He had previously stated that he didn't like the practice of his colleagues, who use rapid-fire questions to cut off lawyers. He stated that he didn't see how it advances anything in 2012.
One change will be made to the remote arguments. The justices stated that they will continue to allow audio of oral arguments to broadcast live by the news media during the pandemic. The court used to only allow audio of oral arguments in high-profile cases, but this was before the pandemic. This meant that only a small number of people could hear the arguments live in the courtroom. Although the court released a transcript of the arguments the same day, it only posted the audio to its website days later, prior to the pandemic.
Like much of the country, the court essentially shut down to the public by mid-March of 2020. Visitors were not allowed to visit the court and arguments for April were postponed. April's arguments were also postponed after the court announced that it would be hearing 10 cases via telephone starting May 4, 2020.
The court heard all its arguments via the internet during the term that began October 2020. They heard 68 arguments via phone during the absence of the justices from the courtroom. The court announced in early March that all the justices had been vaccinated and they resumed holding their private conferences in person.