Despite COVID-19 challenges, Supreme Court will rule on major cases in coming weeks

Posted at 4:06 PM, May 18, 2020

During this time of year, outside the U.S. Supreme Court is usually full with activity. There are traditionally dozens of media crews, hundreds of protesters and large rallies are common.

This year, the High Court is still hearing cases. However, the pandemic has prompted activity to be minimal.

"It's eerie. I know from the news they are very busy right now, Gavin Coleman, a Washingtonian who lives near the Supreme Court, said.

"On days typically like this, there would be people protesting one side or another."

The lack of activity outside has not changed the court's calendar.

In the coming weeks, the Supreme Court Justices will rule on major cases impacting American life.

The Supreme Court will decide if DACA can stay or if President Donald Trump has the legal authority to end it.

The Court will also rule on whether the president must release his tax returns, as well as make a decision on an abortion case from Louisiana, which could prompt the closure of clinics around the country.

But will this pandemic fundamentally change any rulings? After all, instead of hearing arguments in person, the Supreme Court has been conducting them on the telephone, broadcasting them live for the very first time.

"Obviously, not seeing the body language is a huge challenge and the other challenge is, I've been told, you seem faster over the phone," said Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser, who recently argued a consequential case involving the Electoral College and whether electors can vote for whomever they want.

Weiser says he believes Justices were actively listening and asking questions as if the arguments were taking place in person.

"I do think our argument came through, and that’s all I could have asked for," Weiser said.

Although arguments are taking place over the telephone doesn't mean a Justice's legal rationale is going to change. But some scholars have speculated it might be harder for one justice to change the mind of another if they aren't seeing them in person.

"I think the Supreme Court is showing we can continue to do our business without completely ignoring public safety," Professor Paul Schiff Berman, a law professor at George Washington University, said.

In fact, Schiff Berman believes the court has actually, in some circumstances, has behaved more orderly throughout this process.

Interruptions among Justices are rare, since the format has suggested Justices ask questions one at a time.

In fact, Justice Clarence Thomas has actually asked questions for the first time in years.

"This is actually much more orderly," Schiff Berman said.

Of course, just like the rest of America, there have been some minor adjustment issues, including a mysterious toilet flushing noise from an unmuted Justice.

The U.S. Supreme Court traditionally rules on cases before the end of June. Whether the Supreme Court continues to broadcast oral arguments live following this pandemic is still unclear.

Joe St. George is the National Political Editor and Washington Correspondent for E.W. Scripps. St. George is based in Washington.