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Supreme Court streams oral arguments for first time as justices work remotely

Supreme Court hears cases in teleconference
Supreme Court hears cases in teleconference 07:37

Washington — The typically technology-averse Supreme Court broke new ground Monday as it conducted arguments remotely by telephone and streamed live audio for the first time, inviting the masses to experience an event usually reserved for members of the public who wait in line to get into the court's stately courtroom on Capitol Hill.

The arguments were conducted with few issues, with the exception of a delay from Justice Sonia Sotomayor as she began her questioning in the first half of the arguments — perhaps the result of a muted phone line — and muzzled audio from Justice Stephen Breyer during the second half of arguments, which quickly cleared. While one hour was allotted, the arguments lasted roughly 75 minutes, though Chief Justice John Roberts worked to keep questioning by his colleagues moving swiftly.

Kicking off a historic two weeks for the Supreme Court was a dispute between the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office and Booking.com over a bid by the online reservation company to trademark the name.

The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office refused registration because the term "booking" is generic and said the addition of ".com" did not create a protectable mark. Booking.com sought review of the decision from a federal district court in Virginia, which ruled in favor of the company. The 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals agreed.

Two women were the first to test the court's new method for hearing arguments — Supreme Court veteran Lisa Blatt argued for Booking.com, and Erica Ross of the Solicitor General's Office at the Justice Department for the government.

Arguments began with Supreme Court Marshal Pamela Talkin crying "oyez, oyez, oyez, all persons having business before the honorable, the Supreme Court of the United States, are admonished to give their attention for the court is now sitting. God save the United States and this honorable court."

Roberts then began questioning without acknowledging the historic nature of the arguments. Questions proceeded in order of seniority, with Justice Clarence Thomas, who was second to question Ross, deviating from his typical silence during oral arguments.

"Miss Ross, a couple of questions," Thomas said. He also posed several questions for Blatt during the second half of arguments.

The arguments hit a bit of a snag after Roberts called for Sotomayor to begin her questioning of Ross.

"Justice Sotomayor?" Roberts said. "Justice Sotomayor?"

"I'm sorry, chief," Sotomayor eventually responded, apparently unmuting her phone.

After all nine justices completed their questioning of Ross, Roberts instructed her to "take a minute to wrap up" before moving to Blatt, who is arguing for Booking.com.

In one instance, during questions from Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Blatt made reference to life under stay-at-home orders, which for many have come to include searches for food delivery services and toilet paper, now a valuable commodity in some places.

"Sometimes people think of 'genericword.coms' generically. 'I have searched every grocerystore.com looking for toilet paper. I have now started looking at every hardware.com. I am using fooddelivery.com for all of my takeouts these days,'" she said. "Those are generic usages of a genericword.com."

When Breyer followed Ginsburg with questions for Blatt, his audio was muffled and distorted, making it difficult to hear. The issues, however, were eventually resolved.

Roberts often interrupted Blatt and Ross to direct his colleagues to begin their questions and at times prodded the lawyers to respond briefly. 

Arguments concluded with Talkin adjourning the court until Tuesday at 10 a.m., when they will hear their second case by telephone.

The Supreme Court, like other millions of Americans, government institutions and businesses, has been forced to alter the way it conducts its proceedings to comply with public health guidelines implemented to curtail the spread of the coronavirus.

As part of those efforts, the court canceled its oral arguments scheduled to be in March and April and instead decided to hold arguments telephonically for 10 cases over the first two weeks of May. Among the legal battles set to be heard remotely are closely watched cases over subpoenas for President Trump's financial records, faithless electors and the Electoral College, and Obamacare's contraception mandate.

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