Only a Select Few Will Witness Upcoming Term’s Supreme Court Oral Arguments

Richard Shugrue
Richard Shugrue
The Daily Record

If you’re planning to watch the United States Supreme Court hear arguments in person this fall, forget about it.

While the top court announced that this fall’s docket will be heard live in the majestic chamber, the public will not be admitted to the building. Practically speaking, only the justices, court personnel, the credentialed press and counsel will attend.

The rest of the world will get to hear live audio of the cases, as has been the rule since the court resumed sessions remotely. The pandemic has slammed the door to public access, but the live broadcast of arguments is an innovation.

The Supreme Court has still put a hex on video of the arguments despite the advance of technology minimizing the intrusiveness of TV equipment.

This October marks the first time Justice Amy Coney Barrett will actually sit with colleagues on the bench since her confirmation late last October.

During the virtual hearings, justices remained at home and were allowed to question counsel in order of seniority, without the freewheeling “butting-in” which characterizes live arguments.

Attending arguments is a marvelous experience for any lawyer — any citizen, for that matter. The building itself is astounding, and the courtroom, while smaller than you may imagine, is awesome. The effect of the proceeding is like attendance at a solemn religious affair.

However, few arguments are as dramatic to the average attendee as, say, the New York gun case or the Mississippi abortion dispute later this term are likely to be.

When the arguments begin on Oct. 4, the cases will mostly seem to be highly technical, leading some who are not court junkies to ask, “Why are they hearing that one, out of all the thousands of cases filed each term?” Wooden v. U.S., the very first case of the term, involves enhanced sentencing under the Armed Career Criminal Act.

The second case of the day is Mississippi v Tennessee, in which Mississippi is asking for leave to file an original action over ground water rights.

Of course, the court is not in the business of entertaining the public but in resolving disputes, which are as serious as a heart attack to the parties and involve matters of great moment to our system of justice.

Amy Howe, the wonderful writer for Scotusblog, did a piece some months ago (April 2020) on seating at the high court, and reminded readers that there are only 439 places in the courtroom, and most of them are not available to the public.

Only about 50 are available to Jane and John Doe, and the rest are open to members of the Supreme Court Bar, dignitaries, the press and the like. On a “big day” (the Mississippi abortion argument, for example), lines will form hours before arguments start, and one’s chances of getting in are about as likely as a petitioner’s chance of getting a writ of cert granted.

We’ll just have to wait until another day for the court to be open following the pandemic.


Richard Shugrue is a professor emeritus at the Creighton University School of Law and a columnist for The Daily Record.


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