Politics

Progressive groups urge Supreme Court to broadcast arguments during coronavirus closure

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Key Points
  • The coronavirus pandemic has shuttered the doors to major sporting events, concerts and Broadway plays. 
  • It could also keep the public from hearing arguments at the Supreme Court, which announced it would close indefinitely on Thursday.
  • On Friday, 11 progressive and civil rights groups urged the top court not to let that happen.
Crowds line up outside the Supreme Court as it resumes oral arguments at the start of its new term in Washington, October 7, 2019.
Mary F. Calvert | Reuters

The coronavirus pandemic has shuttered the doors to major sporting events, concerts and Broadway plays. 

It could also keep the public from hearing major arguments at the Supreme Court, which announced it would close indefinitely on Thursday.

That includes high-profile cases scheduled for later this month over whether President Donald Trump may keep his tax returns shielded from investigators and an April dispute over a policy that makes it easier for employers to deny insurance coverage for contraception. 

On Friday, 11 national progressive and civil rights groups representing millions of members urged the top court not to let that happen. The coalition is pressing the justices to broadcast all of its arguments live to the public while the building remains closed to spectators. 

"Though we applaud the Court's quick response to the threat, we believe strongly that it must make alternative arrangements in order to ensure that the public has full transparency into the Court's dealings," the groups wrote in a statement. 

The signatories are Demand Justice, NARAL Pro-Choice America, Indivisible, the Center for Popular Democracy, People for the American Way, the Planned Parenthood Action Fund, the Progressive Turnout Project, the National Action Network, the National Women's Law Center, the National Partnership For Women and Families and The Revolving Door Project.

"In order to ensure full transparency and maintain trust from the public, the Supreme Court must make its oral arguments available to the public via live audio and video, at least until it can reopen its doors to the public," they wrote. 

The plea with the court comes one day after the Supreme Court announced that it would bar the public from its historic building indefinitely even as it moves full steam ahead with its ongoing cases. Washington Mayor Muriel Bowser declared a state of emergency on Wednesday.

The court has long resisted calls from lawmakers, court observers and activists to make its arguments available live over the internet or television, fearing that it would affect the manner in which attorneys and the justices operate.

Justices Elena Kagan and Samuel Alito reiterated that position last year during an appearance before the House Appropriations Committee. Kagan warned that cameras would be "a very bad bargain" and Alito cautioned they could come "at the expense of damaging the decision-making process." 

The court provides same-day transcripts of oral arguments and releases audio generally within a week. Reporters and court artists are allowed to attend arguments and take notes, though without access to electronic devices. 

Those who wish to attend oral arguments in person must wait for hours in line — overnight in high-profile cases — and hope for one of about 250 seats available to the public. Cases involving religious disputes often draw professional line-waiters who camp out by the court to reserve seats for their generally anonymous benefactors. 

Gabe Roth, the executive director of Fix the Court, a nonpartisan Supreme Court watchdog group, said in a statement on Thursday that the court "at a minimum" could provide live-streamed audio.

Roth noted that the court appeared to already have the technological capacity to do so, citing the 2016 webcast of Justice Antonin Scalia's memorial service

"Live audio is the smartest way to balance the now-competing concerns of public safety and public access," Roth said.

Lawmakers have introduced legislation that would require the court to provide greater transparency around its arguments.

In January, House Judiciary Chairman Jerry Nadler, D-N.Y., Rep. Mike Quigley, D-Ill., Rep. Gerry Connolly, D-Va. and Rep. Steve Chabot, R-Ohio, introduced the Eyes on the Court act, which would require cameras in virtually all Supreme Court and federal appellate court proceedings. 

A month later, Nadler, Quigley and Rep. Hank Johnson, D-Ga., introduced the 21st Century Courts Act, which makes live audio a requirement at the top court within two years of enactment, among other measures championed by court watchdogs. That legislation, though, provides an exception in cases where the building is not open to the public. 

The Supreme Court did not respond to a request for comment.