Oral Argument in the Time of COVID: The Chief Plays Calvinball
59 Pages Posted: 23 Aug 2020 Last revised: 4 Jan 2021
Date Written: January 4, 2021
In this Article, we empirically assess the Supreme Court’s experiment in hearing telephonic oral arguments. We compare the telephonic hearings to those heard in-person by the current Court and examine whether the justices followed norms of fairness and equality. We show that the telephonic forum changed the dynamics of oral argument in a way that gave the Chief Justice new power, and that Chief Justice Roberts, knowingly or unknowingly, used that new power to benefit his ideological allies. We also show that the Chief interrupted the female justices disproportionately more than the male justices and gave the male justices more substantive opportunity to have their questions answered.
This analysis transcends the significance of individual cases. The fact that the Court experimented with telephonic oral argument, the way it did so, and how the practice could be improved are all issues of profound national importance. The new format had the potential to influence the outcome of cases that have broad national significance, to shift norms of equality and transparency at the Court, and more generally to affect judicial legitimacy. If the Court favors certain parties or certain ideological camps by its choice of forum in a time of crisis, then that will undermine not only the Court’s claim to legitimacy but it also raises doubts whether any of our national institutions have the capacity to adapt to crises more generally.
Keywords: Coronavirus, COVID-19, Pandemic, Institutions, Adaptation, Supreme Court, Oral Argument, Empirical Legal Studies
JEL Classification: K00
Suggested Citation: Suggested Citation