Assessing the Supreme Court’s new oral argument format

When the coronavirus pandemic forced it to move to telephonic oral arguments last May, the U.S. Supreme Court adopted a new format. Each Justice, in descending order of seniority, was afforded three minutes to ask questions of each side. The result was much cleaner, and in many ways more interesting, that the conversational scrum that typically erupts at One First Street. Justice Thomas has come alive, knowing that he will be able to get a question out without interruption. And while more junior Justices have some of the wind taken out of their sails for having to wait their turn, some of the follow-up questions have proven to be equally interesting and clarifying.

Of course, not everyone is happy with the new format, and Bloomberg Law reporter Kimberly Strawbridge Robinson has been all over it. Last month, she explained that it has been harder for advocates and reporters to get a sense of what’s on the mind of Amy Coney Barrett, the juniormost Justice, since she is last in the queue to ask questions. And recently, she reported that many of the Justices themselves dislike the format, specifically because it stifles the freewheeling discussion to which they are accustomed. In particular, Justice Breyer, who likes to tease out lengthy hypotheticals during oral argument, has been frustrated to hear the Chief Justice say “your time is up” before the question is even complete.

I’m not sure there is an answer that will please everyone. My gut instinct is to extend the time for oral argument — there is nothing magical about 30 minutes per side — but that will probably just invite more palaverous and repetitive questions. What about submitting written questions to the parties after the argument? I’m just spitballing here. But having enjoyed getting to hear Justice Thomas’s thinking during telephonic hearings — not to mention the clarity of not having everyone talk over each other — I would hate to just have a knee-jerk reversion to the old system when the pandemic subsides.

Lat on Supreme Court telephonic arguments

It’s so great to have David Lat back with a guest post at Above the Law — not only because it’s a sign that he is recovering from his serious COVID-19 scare a few weeks ago, but also because he always adds desperately needed sensibility to a blog that has become virtually unreadable since he handed over the full-time reins years ago.

Lat comments on the recent round of telephonic oral arguments at the Supreme Court, and in particular the Justices’ stringently ordered questioning. Some prominent commentators have criticized the regimented process, arguing that it prevents cross-discussion and gives to much power to the Chief Justice, who acts as the moderator. But Lat points out that a more carefully ordered structure also has its advantages, and even notes that there is ample room for some middle ground:

Evidence that the new approach promotes rather than reduces equality among the justices: the active participation of Justice Clarence Thomas, who in the past has rarely asked questions during oral argument, but who used the more orderly format to raise a number of excellent and incisive points. The old format gave an unfair advantage to the most aggressive and obstreperous justices, while disadvantaging someone like Justice Thomas, a self-described introvert, as well as the female justices, who were frequently interrupted by their male colleagues. In other words, the new format is more fair to justices who aren’t white males.

But there is, as is often the case at SCOTUS, some room for compromise. My proposal (which I previously floated on Twitter): have one round of questions moderated by the Chief Justice, where each justice gets to have a say, then devote the remaining time to unstructured questioning.

Yes. Even with an institution as tradition-oriented and “small-c” conservative as the Supreme Court, there is a good chance that some of the changes necessitated by the coronavirus will stick when the pandemic is over. Lat offers good suggestions that the Supreme Court might well wish to take into account.