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Supreme Court shuts for first time in a century, delaying key Trump-related cases

March 16, 2020, 5:21 PM UTC

The Supreme Court has suspended oral arguments scheduled for March because of the coronavirus outbreak, marking the first time in over a century that it has resorted to such drastic measures.

The announcement on Monday means 10 scheduled hearings will not take place as planned. Some of the cases involve technical matters, such as trademark registrations, while others are focused on civil liberties issues such as deportation rules and arrest procedures.

The most high-profile cases to be postponed include one pitting Google against Oracle over alleged intellectual property theft, and another two cases that will determine the scope of investigations into President Trump’s financial records.

In a letter announcing the postponements, a Supreme Court spokesperson said the court was exploring procedures to reschedule. One possibility is for the court to move the cases to open slots in April, or else hear them during its next term in the fall.

Of the 10 cases, only the two involving President Trump’s finances are particularly time sensitive.

There is little in the way of precedent when it comes to closing the Supreme Court for significant time. The only previous examples were in 1918, when emergency measures to curtail the Spanish flu delayed the court’s opening for several weeks, and in the 1790s, when fears of yellow fever briefly closed the court. The top court also closed for a day following an anthrax scare in October of 2001.

The court remained open through both World War I and II, and during major snowstorms that shut other parts of Washington, D.C.

The closing of the Supreme Court is a drastic but understandable measure, given that three of the nine Justices are in their 70s and 80s—including Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who is 87 and has undergone numerous medical procedures in recent years. Older people are at higher risk of death from the coronavirus.

When the court reopens, it may bar the public from visiting, but continue its practice of releasing audio recordings at the end of the week they are heard. While the court could release the recordings on the same day as the hearings, it may be reluctant to establish such a precedent, according to Tom Goldstein, the publisher of the influential SCOTUSblog.

While the court has considerable latitude to adopt technology, such as live-streaming, that could disseminate its proceedings to a broader audience, it has so far resisted doing so. A prolonged period of closed hearings, however, could force the tradition-bound court to change procedures, in part because public access to court proceedings is a bedrock principle of American law.

Other federal and state courts across the country have taken similar measures to close or limit gatherings, including jury duty.

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