Oral Argument in the Time of COVID: The Chief Plays Calvinball

59 Pages Posted: 23 Aug 2020

See all articles by Tonja Jacobi

Tonja Jacobi

Northwestern University - Pritzker School of Law

Timothy R. Johnson

University of Minnesota

Eve Ringsmuth

Oklahoma State University - Stillwater

Matthew Sag

Loyola University Chicago School of Law

Date Written: August 20, 2020

Abstract

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

Jacobi, Tonja and Johnson, Timothy R. and Ringsmuth, Eve and Sag, Matthew, Oral Argument in the Time of COVID: The Chief Plays Calvinball (August 20, 2020). Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=3678316 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.3678316

Tonja Jacobi (Contact Author)

Northwestern University - Pritzker School of Law ( email )

375 E. Chicago Ave
Chicago, IL 60611
United States

Timothy R. Johnson

University of Minnesota ( email )

Department of Political Science
1414 Social Sciences, 267 19th Ave S.
Minneapolis, MN 55455-0410
United States

Eve Ringsmuth

Oklahoma State University - Stillwater ( email )

Stillwater, OK 74078-0555
United States

HOME PAGE: http://everingsmuth.com

Matthew Sag

Loyola University Chicago School of Law ( email )

25 E. Pearson
Chicago, IL 60611
United States

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