May 5, 2020

One of America’s most technophobic institutions took a step out of the dark ages

For the first time, the Supreme Court held oral arguments by teleconference. For the most part, the historic occasion went smoothly.

Pigs didn’t fly and hell didn’t freeze over. But with the historic shifts that went down at the Supreme Court yesterday, we might believe you if you said they did.

America’s highest-flying legal eagles are famously allergic to technology. News reporters who cover the oral arguments are reduced to pen-and-paper scribblers (they don’t call us ink-stained wretches for nothing).

Electronic devices, including phones and video cameras, are a no-no, to the dismay of networks and lawyers worldwide.

Anyone craving a more lifelike account of the arguments typically has to wait for an audio recording to be released. Or make do with a sketch.

Until Monday.

To make your case, dial 1-800-Oyez-Oyez

For the first time, the court held arguments by teleconference — and allowed regular Janes and Joes to listen to the justices grill the lawyers in real time on C-SPAN.

The case at hand involved a trademark fight between the government and the online travel agency Booking.com.

By all accounts, the technology behaved — save for one moment when Justice Sonia Sotomayor apparently forgot to unmute herself (see, they really are just like us).

That said, one long-standing court tradition definitely went out the window: Justice Clarence Thomas, who’s famous for his silence on the bench, actually *asked questions* — his first since March 2019 and a major rarity in recent years.

The veteran political analyst Jeff Greenfield’s take: “Apparently all these years, he was just waiting for the chance to be on Zoom.” (Seriously: Thomas has said he’s no fan of the way questions and interruptions fly at oral arguments IRL).

Now for the important question

What’s in a justice’s Zoom background?

We didn’t get to see them, but the veteran court sketcher Arthur Lien used his imagination: Justice John Roberts was workin’ the switchboard, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg pumped some iron, and Justice Neil Gorsuch called in on one of those awesomely ’80s Gordon Gekko cell phones.

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