The United States Supreme Court is set to make history on Monday as it conducts hearings via a conference call and for the first time in its history allows the public to listen in.
The scheduled move comes as justices return to session following delays due to the coronavirus pandemic, and marks a major shift in the court’s approach to digital transparency that has left advocates hopeful.
The voices of the nine justices – as arguments will be made over the phone due to the coronavirus crisis – will be streamed on public access channel C-SPAN. This marks the first opportunity that the general people can experience court proceedings in real time. The first case begins on Monday at 10am (15:00 GMT).
“I think it would be a benefit for the American public,” said Gabe Roth, executive director of Fix The Court, a nonpartisan group that advocates for transparency in the court.
Considering the partisan nature of politics, Roth said seeing the nine justices, who come from different sides of the US political spectrum, “coming to a problem collectively to try to solve it” would “make the public see the court more positively”.
The top court has long bucked technological advances pushed by transparency advocates like Fix The Court.
It was not until 2000, the year the Supreme Court played an essential role in deciding the election of then-candidate George W Bush, who lost the popular vote to Vice President Al Gore, that the court allowed the same-day release of the audio for oral arguments.
Even after that development in 2000, the audio for most oral arguments was released at the start of the next session, which meant up to a year of waiting.
This changed in 2010, when audio started to be released the week after arguments were made.
Electronic filing for court documents came in 2017, though paper filing was still commonly required. It was not until an April 15 order that the court relaxed (PDF) these rules – again due to the coronavirus.
The ‘whole story’
While live audio streaming is a major development for the court, it does not mean it will adopt live video.
The court has long resisted any calls to introduce cameras into the court.
Justice Stephen Breyer said in a 2015 interview that cameras could cause undue bias among the public regarding laws that affect more than 300 million US citizens.
Human beings “relate to people they see” while oral arguments account for only 5 percent of deciding a case,” Breyer said. “Will they understand the whole story?”
But Roth still believes a more visible court is the right path forward, and hopes it lasts.
“I’m excited, I’m cautiously optimistic … they’ll make this the new policy will have staying power,” he told Al Jazeera.
The first Supreme Court case ever streamed live will deal with patents. The court will decide whether adding “.com” to an otherwise generic business term results in a protectable trademark in US Patent and Trademark Office v Booking.com.
While not the most exciting case, it could give the court and its technical team a chance to handle any technical difficulties before delving into larger issues surrounding religious exemptions, US jurisdiction on Native American lands and President Donald Trump’s tax returns.
On Tuesday, the court will hear arguments – for the second time – about whether the federal government can require foreign affiliates of US-based NGOs receiving federal funds to have policies expressly opposing prostitution and sex trafficking in United States Agency for International Development v Alliance for Open Society International, Inc.
The court decided in 2013 that the requirement violated the First Amendment, which protects freedom of expression.
The court will start on Wednesday with consolidated cases, Little Sisters of the Poor v Pennsylvania and Donald J Trump v Pennsylvania, which question the legality of the Trump administration’s 2019 rule broadening conscientious objection exemptions to the Affordable Care Act regarding abortion, contraception, assisted suicide, advance directives and other types of medical care.