The Supreme Court’s announcement on Monday that it would livestream oral arguments in 10 cases next month, including three centered on President Donald Trump’s financial records, is a historic breakthrough in public access to America’s highest court.
The decision to make their teleconference arguments public brings some immediate transparency to an insular institution that has long prided itself on resisting technology and live broadcasts of any kind.
It is, to be certain, a limited move. There will be no video pictures of the black-robed nine as they question lawyers in cases, and the court is allowing access to real-time arguments only for special May sittings during the Covid-19 pandemic.
“The courtroom is a very special place,” Chief Justice John Roberts has asserted. “Maybe part of what makes it special is that you don’t see it on television.”
Oral arguments in Bush v. Gore, which decided the 2000 presidential election, were not broadcast live. Neither were oral arguments over the fate of the Affordable Care Act, commonly known as “Obamacare,” same-sex marriage or abortion rights controversies. Only those who waited in line for a seat in the courtroom could attend and follow in real time. For some cases, the justices made an audio recording available later in the day.
The usual practice has been for the court to put an audio link on its website each Friday, useful for the historical record and legal followers, but not necessarily an exciting draw for the general public. Only for a few high-profile cases have the justices even released audio recordings on the same day as an argument.
Now, even the President, if he chooses, can tweet along with the action.
The announcement demonstrates, after a month of postponing any action on disputes scheduled for March and April, that the justices are willing to change their ways — as a multitude of lower court judges already have — to get their business done.