Supreme Court plans return to in-person arguments next month

The justices will keep a live audio feed for members of the public, who still won’t be able to sit in the courtroom

Members of the Supreme Court, posing here for a group photo in April, will restart in-person oral arguments in October. (Erin Schaff/The New York Times)
Members of the Supreme Court, posing here for a group photo in April, will restart in-person oral arguments in October. (Erin Schaff/The New York Times)
Posted September 8, 2021 at 12:09pm

The Supreme Court announced Wednesday that justices will return to in-person oral arguments in October for the first time since the pandemic started but will keep a live audio feed for members of the public who still won’t be able to sit in the courtroom.

That will include arguments in a major gun rights case in November that will be a test of how far the justices might extend constitutional gun rights outside the home.

The justices made history in May 2020 when they participated in oral arguments with lawyers via telephone, as C-SPAN and others aired the first live internet audio broadcast of the high court’s proceedings.

Usually watchers are limited to the few hundred who can fit inside the courtroom, but the threat of the highly contagious COVID-19 has shut down the building to the public for more than 18 months.

Wednesday's announcement of a continued live audio feed of resumed in-person arguments — a step some members of Congress have sought for years — could be a sign that changes from the pandemic could stick.

But also, maybe not. It took an international pandemic to drag the Supreme Court a bit into the internet age, but the announcement pointed out the change covers only the first three months of the new term — October, November and December.

Meanwhile, the building remains closed to the public and courtroom access will be limited to the justices, essential court personnel, lawyers and some journalists.

“Out of concern for the health and safety of the public and Supreme Court employees, the Courtroom sessions will not be open to the public,” the Supreme Court announcement said. “The Court will continue to closely monitor public health guidance in determining plans.”

Additional details about the live audio feed will be announced in the coming weeks.

University of Texas law professor Steve Vladeck called the continuation of live audio an excellent development, “and hopefully one that continues even when the courtroom reopens to the public.”

Generally, the live audio has gone smoothly for the Supreme Court. But it changed the traditional style of the arguments since the justices took turns asking questions, instead of a more free-ranging discussion full of interjections and interactions among the justices. That facilitated questions from a broader range of justices — most notably Justice Clarence Thomas, who in his three decades on the court rarely had jumped in to ask questions.