Called to order: Supreme Court holds 1st arguments by phone

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A man exercises on the steps of the Supreme Court where the justices will hold arguments by telephone for the first time ever, Monday, May 4, 2020, in Washington. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

WASHINGTON – They politely took turns speaking. Not a child, spouse or dog could be heard in the background. The conference call went long, but not by that much.

And with that, the Supreme Court made history Monday, hearing arguments by telephone and allowing the world to listen in live, both for the first time.

The arguments were essentially a high-profile phone discussion with the nine justices and two arguing lawyers. The session went remarkably smoothly, notable for a high court that prizes tradition and only reluctantly changes the way it operates.

The high court had initially postponed arguments in 20 cases scheduled for March and April because of the coronavirus pandemic. Courtroom sessions were seen as unsafe, especially with six justices aged 65 or older and at risk of getting seriously sick from the virus. But the justices ultimately decided to hear 10 cases by phone over six days this month.

The cases the court will hear include President Donald Trump’s effort to shield tax and other financial records and whether presidential electors have to cast their Electoral College ballots for the candidate who wins the popular vote in their state.

The court chose a somewhat obscure case about whether the travel website Booking.com can trademark its name for its first foray into remote arguments. The more high-profile arguments come next week.

Monday's groundbreaking session began at the usual time of 10 a.m. EDT, when Marshal Pamela Talkin called the court to order and Chief Justice John Roberts announced the case.

“Oyez! Oyez! Oyez!” Talkin began, using the ceremonial language used in the courtroom. But she skipped a few words of her usual script and didn't tell people “to draw near” and give their attention, a reflection of the unusual circumstances. One other difference: her words were prerecorded “to simplify the proceedings," court spokeswoman Kathy Arberg said in an email.