Supreme Court Relaxes COVID-19 Precautions, While Live Audio Remains

The U.S. Supreme Court opens its 2022-23 term this week as observers speculate whether the Court will continue to erode precedents. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, non-credentialed reporters and the public were excluded from the courtroom in recent terms. They will be allowed to return in this term, and masking will not be required in the courtroom. (Justices, attorneys, and credentialed reporters returned in the 2021-22 term after a total closure in 2020-21.) The public will have access to the Supreme Court Building only for oral arguments.

During the pandemic, the Court overcame its reluctance to live stream oral arguments. It broadcast live audio of oral arguments to the public, allowing citizens to follow the twists and turns of the proceedings. The Court has announced that live audio will continue in the 2022-23 term, even though public in-person access has resumed. However, it is not clear whether live audio is here to stay forever or whether the Court will eventually leave it behind as the pandemic eases further.

The next frontier may involve live video coverage of oral arguments. A majority of respondents in a C-SPAN poll supported this step, but it may take time for the Court to embrace television. Putting cameras in the courtroom could cause attorneys to “play to the camera” rather than focusing on the questions posed by the Justices, who also might watch what they say to avert controversy. This could make oral arguments less useful in deciding cases.

As younger Justices continue to join the Court, however, its views on technology could change. For now, members of the public who cannot attend arguments in person must be content with the live audio feed. They also can access oral argument audio files and transcripts after the arguments conclude.

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