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Supreme Court calls off oral arguments in first postponement of its kind in 102 years

The Supreme Court building in Washington.
The Supreme Court announced it will not hold oral arguments during the next two weeks because of coronavirus concerns.
(Susan Walsh / Associated Press)

The Supreme Court announced Monday it would not hold oral arguments during the next two weeks because of the coronavirus, the first postponement of its kind since 1918.

In the past, the high court has stayed open and heard oral arguments even on days when most of Washington was shut down by heavy snow. But the court decided against having lawyers travel across the country to argue before not just nine justices but several hundred onlookers

“In keeping with public health precautions recommended in response to COVID-19, the Supreme Court is postponing the oral arguments currently scheduled for the March session (March 23-25 and March 30-April 1). The court will examine the options for rescheduling those cases in due course in light of the developing circumstances,” the court’s public information office said in a statement.

The court had been scheduled to hear arguments in several high-profile cases, including President Trump’s appeal of three lower court rulings that would require his accountants to disclose his tax returns to several House committees and to a New York district attorney.

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It is not clear whether the postponement will change how or when the court decides those cases. Typically, the justices hear oral arguments through the end of April and issue opinions in those cases by the end of June. But both schedules can be changed. The justices have at times heard arguments in May and have not released their final rulings until July.

The court said the justices would hold a regularly scheduled conference on Friday morning to consider pending appeals. But the announcement said some of the justices might participate by phone.

The virus is particularly dangerous for older people. The court’s two oldest members are Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who marked her 87th birthday on Sunday, and Justice Stephen G. Breyer, 81.

The court said the postponement of argument sessions was “not unprecedented. The court postponed scheduled arguments for October 1918 in response to the Spanish flu epidemic. The court also shortened its argument calendars in August 1793 and August 1798 in response to yellow fever outbreaks.”

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Several lawyers who practice before the court said they welcomed the early announcement because they had plans to fly to Washington over the weekend.

Among the cases to be heard next week was Google vs. Oracle, labeled the “copyright case of the century.” Google developed its Android system using parts of a Java program, but after Oracle purchased Sun Microsystems, it sued Google for copyright infringement and sought more than $8 billion in damages. The court agreed to hear Google’s appeal seeking to have the suit tossed out.

The Trump tax cases were to be heard on March 31. At issue is a clash between the power of Congress and prosecutors to investigate against the president’s power to be shielded from intrusive personal investigations. On April 1, the court had planned to hear arguments in two cases brought by the Archbishop of Los Angeles seeking to block anti-discrimination claims from two teachers who were dismissed by Catholic schools.

The court then has a scheduled two-week break before two final weeks of arguments are set to begin on April 20.


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