In historic first, Supreme Court to hear arguments by phone

Audio of the argument sessions will be provided live to the news media and made available to the public.

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By Pete Williams

The Supreme Court said Monday that it will hear half of the remaining cases of the term by telephone conference call — a first for the court — with the justices and the lawyers calling in remotely.

Among the 10 cases to be heard is the legal battle over access by Congress and a Manhattan prosecutor to President Donald Trump's tax returns and other financial documents. The court will also take up an important issue involving the presidential electors who meet in December to cast the actual vote for president. The question is whether they must vote for the candidates who won the popular vote in their states or are instead free agents.

The cases were to be heard in March and April and now will be argued during the first two weeks in May. Audio of the argument sessions will be provided live to the news media and made available to the public.

"In keeping with public health guidance in response to COVID-19, the justices and counsel will all participate remotely," the court said. While many of the nation's courts are doing business this way, the Supreme Court has never before adopted the practice and will undoubtedly go through a period of adjustment to temper what is normally aggressive questioning by the justices.

Decisions in these cases will likely be issued during the current term, which normally ends in June. The court did not say whether the term might extend into July. The other cases from March and April that won’t be heard in May will be carried over to the next term.

Oral argument normally concludes in April, so hearing cases in June could put extra pressure on the justices to decide those cases quickly. But Tom Goldstein, a Washington, D.C., lawyer who argues frequently before the court, said the term might not end in June.

"The justices normally want to get things done in June because they have plans for early July," including teaching and lecturing commitments, Goldstein said. "This year, with the pandemic, those are all gone, so ironically there's less pressure to end the term quickly."

Some of the other cases to be heard in May involve a dispute between the city of Philadelphia and a Catholic charity over the suitability of same-sex parents to provide foster care and the scope of a religious objection to providing contraceptive coverage under Obamacare.