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Supreme Court announces partial reopening to public for new term

The high court will continue to provide live audio feeds of oral arguments, a practice that was introduced early in the coronavirus pandemic.
U.S. Supreme Court building
Patrick Semansky / AP file

The Supreme Court will partly reopen to the public next week for the first time since March 2020, when the building was locked down as a result of the Covid pandemic.

The court said in a statement Wednesday that people will be able to attend oral arguments when its new term starts Monday, although "the building will otherwise remain closed to the public." Before the pandemic, people could tour the building, view exhibits and visit the cafeteria and the gift shop.

The statement said the court will, in a break from pre-pandemic convention, continue to livestream audio of oral arguments, which it began when the building was closed, a development that was widely welcomed by the legal community and members of the media.

In recent months, the court has given the impression of an institution under siege, with a fence at times surrounding the building and justices facing protests and threats as the 6-3 conservative majority issued a flurry of rulings that delivered on Republican policy goals, most notably the decision that overturned abortion rights in the landmark Roe v. Wade case. Chief Justice John Roberts said in a public appearance Sept. 9 that it was “gut-wrenching every morning to drive in to a Supreme Court with barricades around it.”

The court has also had to wrestle with the aftermath of the leak in May of a draft of the abortion ruling. Roberts launched an internal investigation to find the leaker; no further details have been released.

Adding to the storm clouds, a growing debate over whether the court risks losing its legitimacy by dramatically and quickly moving the law in a conservative direction has gained momentum, with liberal Justice Elena Kagan having raised the issue in several public appearances.

In March 2020, the justices initially pivoted to holding remote oral arguments by teleconference before they resumed in-person oral arguments in a largely empty courtroom last fall. In a major development, the court began livestreaming audio of oral arguments at the beginning of the pandemic, for the first time allowing the public to hear the court proceedings without being present in the courtroom. Throughout the pandemic, tourists have been barred from the court building, with only some court staff members, lawyers and journalists allowed access at certain times.

The court kept many of its restrictions in place even as the rest of the country — in addition to other government institutions in Washington, such as the White House and the Capitol — largely resumed pre-pandemic practices.

In June, as the court issued its abortion ruling and other big decisions, a security fence surrounded the court. The barrier was erected after the leak of the abortion ruling in May prompted widespread protests not just at the court but also outside the homes of some justices. An armed California man arrested in June outside conservative Justice Brett Kavanaugh's home in Maryland was charged with attempted murder. The fence was taken down at the end of last month.

In another pandemic-induced change in practice, the justices stopped making announcements about rulings from the bench, as had been customary. Rulings have instead been released only on the court’s website. Previously, the justice who wrote a ruling would read a summary in court. In contentious cases, justices would also read passionately from dissenting opinions.