Tuesday Talk*: Hanging On The Telephone

Who says the Supreme Court isn’t flexible?

The Court will hear oral arguments by telephone conference on May 4, 5, 6, 11, 12 and 13 in a limited number of previously postponed cases. 

SCOTUS has discovered telephones! And this accommodation isn’t just for some lawnerd cases, but for one of the hottest issues around.

19-635, Trump v. Vance
19-715, Trump v. Mazars USA, LLP, and 19-760, Trump v. Deutsche Bank AG

If the names don’t strike a bell, these are the subpeonas issued by New York County District Attorney Cyrus Vance, Jr. for various tax returns for the man who would be king.

In keeping with public health guidance in response to COVID-19, the Justices and counsel will all participate remotely. The Court anticipates providing a live audio feed of these arguments to news media. Details will be shared as they become available.

Ordinarily, the news media gets special seats in the courtroom so they can rub each other’s tummies, but these are hard times, and so they will be constrained to listen on their own phones from their bunkers in secret locations, otherwise described as their mom’s basement, and be left to figure out what just happened on their own since they won’t be able to sit there as Lyle Denniston explains the lawyerish words to them.

But the real story here is that the live audio feed won’t be limited to the news media, but will be available to all. Granted, transcripts of arguments have been readily available to anyone who cares to read them, but reading is hard and all those squiggly lines can give you a headache, so few are willing to risk pain to indulge their interest.

Audio, on the other hand, is easy. It’s like a podcast, or an Ariana Grande music video without the visuals and in relatively cogent English.

For a long time, many have argued that the Supreme Court should provide a live feed of oral argument, cameras and all, as is done in other courts. The Court has adamantly refused to do so. Now that the Court has chosen to do oral argument by phone (notably not Zoom or Skype or Facetime or whatever your fav visual medium might be), it’s both broken from tradition and given the public the opportunity to sit on the couch in its collective bathrobe and listen in.

Is this a good thing?

On the one hand, there is a question about whether conducting oral argument by conference call is a wise choice at all. Sure, it’s been done many times under many circumstances, but no one contends that it’s as good as arguing in person. Even worse, without visual cues, what of the ability to know who is talking, who is talking over whom, and how to hear what’s being said when more than one person speaks at a time.

Put aside that anyone using their smartphone will have to contend with the fact that it sucks compared to the old bakelite monsters beauties the justices are used to. Static, distortion, and the inability for two (or more) people to speak and be heard at the same time isn’t going to happen. Telephones are the one item of technology that has gotten consistency worse as it’s advanced. So of course that’s the method the justices chose to use.

And then there’s the question of whether the non-lawyer public, listening in on oral argument in real time (and assuming the public will be muted, because it would be too funny if random people were able to chime in during oral argument, and the justices just don’t have that good a sense of humor) will benefit from the exposure or be left legally clueless, left to their own devices and absurdly misinterpret what they’re hearing, from the legal issues at hand to the arguments proffered.

As anyone who has seen @BadLegalTakes or the answers on the twitter bar exam is painfully well aware, non-lawyers often struggle to understand what lawyers say and what the law is, and come away with some exceptionally bizarre misunderstandings. Now that they can hear it with their own two (is that ableist?) ears, will their legal ignorance manifest as absolute certainty that they know the law since they heard it straight from the Supreme Court?

*Tuesday Talk rules apply.

13 thoughts on “Tuesday Talk*: Hanging On The Telephone

  1. Skink

    “Now that they can hear it with their own two (is that ableist?) ears, will their legal ignorance manifest as absolute certainty that they know the law since they heard it straight from the Supreme Court?”

    Yes, all five people that call in will draw wrong conclusions. But you sound like an ingrate: by using an antiquated method, the Court is not taxing the overloaded Internet. We should thank them for their consideration.

  2. Kathryn M. Kase

    I can’t predict what the twitterati will twit, but I’m willing to bet that the legal press will now run multiple articles on which microphone and backdrop are best for your SCOTUS oral argument.

      1. phv3773

        But Kathryn is correct that equipment matters. Participants should avoid battery-powered phones for obvious reasons. Also, no speakerphones.

        1. LocoYokel

          But Kathryn is correct that equipment matters.

          That’s what she said?

          Sorry, couldn’t resist.

  3. PseudonymousKid


    Idiots are going to spew opinions about the law regardless of the availability of oral argument to the masses. We can already read the transcripts and listen to oral argument after the fact. There’s no big difference in letting us in on it live. The hot takes are going to even hotter. Oh well.

    I blame you for not being influential enough to cut through all the noise and set the record straight. You’d have to pander too much, I think, if it’s even possible to appeal your condemnation as an angry old white man saying angry old white man things. Oh, and you’d have to take the task on pro bono, of course. Come on, Pa, you can do it. Think of the children.


  4. B. McLeod

    “Oh, operator,
    Let’s forget about that call,
    Noone there, I really wanted to talk to. . .”

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