Coronavirus

Supreme Court, For First Time Since 1918, Postpones Oral Arguments

WASHINGTON – The Supreme Court announced Monday it is postponing oral arguments scheduled for later this month due to the coronavirus, something it has not done in more than 100 years.

The court already had closed its doors to the public last Thursday until further notice “out of an abundance of caution.”

The justices had several major cases scheduled for oral argument in March. Tops on the list were battles over subpoenas for President Donald Trump’s tax returns and financial records from congressional committees and New York prosecutors. Trump’s lawyers want the documents to remain shielded.

“In keeping with public health precautions recommended in response to COVID-19, the Supreme Court is postponing the oral arguments currently scheduled for the March session,” the announcement said. “The court will examine the options for rescheduling those cases in due course in light of the developing circumstances.”

The last time oral arguments were postponed was in 1918, due to the Spanish flu epidemic. The court also shortened its argument calendars in August 1793 and August 1798 in response to yellow fever outbreaks.

There had been speculation that the court – which famously conducts business as usual even during blizzards and government shutdowns – might hold oral arguments but without allowing the public inside. Only the justices, lawyers arguing the cases, and journalists would have been present under that scenario.

Liberal organizations responded quickly to the court’s announcement, urging the justices to find another way to hear and decide the battle over Trump’s financial records. Although the president has lost in lower courts, any delay at the Supreme Court would help his cause by keeping the records hidden.

Christopher Kang, chief counsel of the liberal advocacy group Demand Justice, said the postponement should not let Trump “continue stonewalling subpoenas for his financial records.”

“By pausing correctly-decided lower court decisions and then refusing to take this case on an expedited basis, the court has already denied prosecutors and Congress months of time to bring to light any wrongdoing before the election,” Kang said. “That cannot continue indefinitely.”

In the meantime, the court said the justices will hold their regularly scheduled private conference Friday, but some of them may participate by phone. That likely will include Associate Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who turned 87 on Sunday and has had four bouts of cancer during the past two decades. Six of the nine justices are at least 65.

Also postponed:

• A major test of the separation of church and state in a case concerning the right of religious schools to fire teachers despite employment discrimination laws.

• A copyright battle over Google’s use of Oracle’s Java programming language to create Android, the world’s most popular mobile software.

The high court holds oral arguments in two-week sittings that begin in early October and extend through April. Decisions are made through the end of June. The next regularly scheduled sitting is set to begin April 20. Among its cases:

• Challenges from Washington State and Colorado on whether the 538 members of the Electoral College must vote for their states’ winning presidential candidates.

• An effort by the Trump administration to let employers and universities with religious or moral objections deny women insurance coverage for contraceptives.

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