The Supreme Court—now social distancing—faces pressure to work online as its case backlog grows
As organizations of all sorts—from companies to schools to charities—shift to video-based operations, the country’s top court is holding out. On Friday, the Supreme Court announced it was postponing hearings set for April owing to the coronavirus pandemic.
The three-paragraph announcement, which comes after the Justices put off 11 cases the court was supposed to have heard in March, said the court would “consider a range of scheduling options and other alternatives” but did not specifically mention the use of video technology.
This has provoked frustration among liberal groups, including Demand Justice, which published an image showing a mock Zoom session of the nine Supreme Court Justices.
“Canceling in-person oral arguments was absolutely the right decision, but millions of Americans have figured out how to adjust to a public health emergency while completing time-sensitive tasks from home,” said the group’s executive director, Brian Fallon, in a statement to Fortune.
Fallon and others have noted that some of the postponed cases concern time-sensitive issues that could have a bearing on November’s election. These include petitions by state officials to require President Trump to release tax documents, as well as a case initially slated for April 28 involving “faithless electors”—election officials who fail to pledge electoral college votes in accordance with voters’ preference.
Meanwhile, the Supreme Court has also delayed other high-profile cases, including a closely watched fight between Google and Oracle over who owns computer programs called APIs. And as several pundits have noted, every Supreme Court case is important to the parties involved, who have typically spent years or even decades waiting for a decision.
Liberal groups are not the only parties pressuring the Supreme Court to take steps—including embracing the Internet—to keep justice moving forward.
“The Justices may have to forgo oral arguments or consider conducting them online,” said an opinion piece by the Wall Street Journal editorial editorial board published Monday. “The Justices have access to written briefs that could inform opinions without an oral argument. The Justices could even—sorry, your Honors—forgo their annual summer break.”
Pressure on the court to move the hearings online will likely gain more force in light of a $500,000 grant the Supreme Court received in the recent stimulus package, which came as part of a larger $7.5 million grant to help improve technology across the judiciary.
In the case of the Supreme Court, though, it’s unlikely technology or resources are an obstacle. In interviews with Fortune, former clerks for the Justices praised the high court’s IT services.
Instead, the reluctance to embrace any sort of live-streaming—even as other high-profile courts, including the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, stream cases on YouTube—appears to be rooted in a tech-averse culture at the Supreme Court. Chief Justice John Roberts has in the past extolled the court’s go-slow approach as a virtue, which has helped the court stay resistant to passing fads.
But as the number of postponed cases pile up, the Chief Justice may likely feel pressure to embrace some of the same technology the rest of the country has during the pandemic. Otherwise, the legal adage “Justice delayed is justice denied” could begin to echo at the Supreme Court.
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