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Supreme Court Postpones Oral Arguments Originally Scheduled For Next Few Weeks

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

For the first time in more than a century, the U.S. Supreme Court is postponing oral arguments. The delayed cases include potential landmarks. One tests whether President Trump can block congressional and grand jury subpoenas for financial records that largely involve his business activities before he became president. NPR legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg reports.

NINA TOTENBERG, BYLINE: The official announcement from the court said the justices would delay oral arguments in six cases scheduled for argument between March 23 and April 1. The court said the decision was in keeping with health precautions recommended in response to the coronavirus. The court, always mindful of legal precedent, noted that it is not the first time that its postponed argument. It did so in 1918 during the Spanish flu epidemic. And in 1793 and 1798, it shortened its argument calendars in response to yellow fever outbreaks. The court said it will examine options for rescheduling, but it's not even clear as of now whether the cases scheduled for oral arguments in late April will be heard on schedule. Normally, those are the last heard in the term where the justices using the next two months to grind out opinions by the end of June. This year, it seems, nothing is certain.

The justices, however, will hold their weekly conference this Friday to discuss cases, though some of the nine may participate by phone. Some of them may remain out of town, and some of them may skip being there in person out of an abundance of caution. Six of the justices are over 65 and, thus, in the more vulnerable category, and some of them have health conditions that could make them more susceptible. The court's oldest justice, 87-year-old Ruth Bader Ginsburg, for instance, has had radiation treatments for cancer during the last eight months. And Justice Sonia Sotomayor, 65, has diabetes. Gabe Roth, director of the nonpartisan judicial watchdog organization Fix the Court, noted that many federal appeals courts do routinely hear arguments via telephone when necessary or even via video link. He pointed to an emergency telephone argument in an abortion case a couple of years ago participated in by then Judge Brett Kavanaugh and two other judges. But Roth concedes there are difficulties when judges are not in the same room. In the abortion case, he noted, the judges, unable to make eye contact, frequently interrupted each other.

GABE ROTH: They were very gracious when were trying to participate, but the attorneys - like, I think there is a challenge when you're not able to see one another.

TOTENBERG: Though the Supreme Court closed its doors to the public last week, it remains open for official business. Indeed, the press office indicated today that the court may well be releasing opinions in cases heard earlier this term.

Nina Totenberg, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.


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