History will be made next Monday at the U.S. Supreme Court. For the first time, America will be able to tune in to listen to the Court’s hearings “live” – just as they happen, directly from the courtroom, and with the Justices asking questions in a rapid-fire, unstructured way. However, it will be audio only; the Court is not yet ready to allow “live” video.
For more than a year, during the coronavirus pandemic, the Court has been holding its hearings remotely, with the Justices separated from each other, from the lawyers making their arguments, and from the direct observation of the news reporters covering the Court. The pandemic had sent the Court away from its home for an entire term, and more.
There has been live audio of the remote hearings during the pandemic, but they were structured in a way that was entirely different from hearings as they have been held for decades. Last term, each Justice got at least one turn to ask questions, in the order of their seniority, so there were no direct exchanges among them and they generally did not follow up on each other’s questions.
Because each Justice had a time limit for each question, they sometimes got cut off by the Chief Justice in the middle of a thought or question. Before the pandemic, and throughout the Court’s history, the pattern was to mix it up, with questions coming as each Justice chose to speak out, in a genuine judicial conversation – sometimes a bit awkward, sometimes rather disorderly yet interesting.
The new mode adopted because of the health crisis did have a distinct unreality to it, and it apparently came to rankle some of the Justices; occasionally their frustration showed.
Monday, the Justices will go to their bench in the Court building, dressed in their robes, ready to go at it freely together with lawyers standing at the lectern in front of them. (The news reporters will be in their places at the side of the courtroom, but there will be no spectators from the public, because of continuing health concerns.) The live audio will be coming directly from the courtroom itself. (Other than online at the Court’s homepage, the audio also will be available on TV at C-Span’s Supreme Court network, and accessible by smartphones at C-Span Now App).
There will be an unusual twist. After each lawyer finishes an allotment of time, with the Justices asking questions freely, a time will then be allowed for each Justice, if he or she wishes, to ask additional questions, in order of seniority. In other words, that unreal approach from last term will still be a part of the hearings, and no one outside the Court has any idea why this is being done, or what benefit the Justices think it might provide.
While listening to the Court “live” from its handsome chamber, the public will not see the scene and will have some difficulty knowing which Justice is speaking. That is because this will be audio only, not video, and the broadcast from the Court will not identify who is speaking at any point; C-Span will attempt to identify the questioners as the hearing moves along. Some of the Justices’ voices are recognizable to devoted Court watchers, but they are few in number, comparatively.
This week, the Court will hold hearings in five cases – two each on Monday and Tuesday, and one on Wednesday. None of them is among the most important or most interesting that will occur during the new term; coming later in the term will be hearings on such major controversies as abortion rights, gun control and religion.
However, here on this blog, the descriptions of what is at issue in each of the cases will appear, a day in advance, starting on Sunday. Those dispatches will be written in lay language.
Exactly how will one find the audio at 10 a.m. on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday and through October, November and December (the Court has not yet announced how hearings will be held beyond December)? From the Court itself, the audio will be available via your computer; here’s how:
1. Go to the Court’s homepage, supremecourt.gov
2. Scroll down to near the bottom of that page, to a section labeled Quick Links.
3. On the right-hand side of those links, next to Contact Us, you will find Live Audio. Click on that, and you are there.
For those who wish to hear the audio on television, C-Span.org plans again, as it did last term, to livestream that portion of the hearings on its network. Listeners should check the C-Span schedule at https://www.c-span.org/supremecourt/
And, for those who wish to hear via smartphone, there is the C-Span Now App. Check that site to learn what is required for access.
Normally, a hearing in each case lasts for about one hour but a few are scheduled for longer. No one– not even the Court staff – yet knows how long each case will continue in the new term, if the Justices use their one-at-a-time questioning opportunity.