Opinion: The Coronavirus brings positive change to the U.S. Supreme Court

If not for the Coronavirus outbreak, Justice Clarence Thomas, a native of tiny Pin Point, Georgia, might have spent his later years on the U.S. Supreme Court doing what he had done for most of his career —saying very little from the bench.

But now, Thomas and the eight other justices may continue to have their voices heard every time a case is argued before the Court.

All of us have encountered some changes in life and work because of the virus outbreak. For the Justices, the Coronavirus scrapped in-person oral arguments in the Spring of 2020, relegating the Justices to telephone conference calls.

For the most part, it worked very well, other than one flushing toilet and some mute buttons.

But Chief Justice John Roberts also changed the question format —from a system where any Justice could butt in to interrupt counsel at any time — to one where questions would be asked in order of seniority on the nine-member court.

And that takes us to Justice Thomas.

Since joining the Court thirty years ago this month — after a confirmation process so controversial it nearly made the paint peel off the Capitol Dome — Thomas’s time at the Supreme Court has been marked by his silence.

“Justice Thomas has previously said that he does not like to interrupt advocates during oral argument,” said Carrie Severino, one of his former law clerks.

At one point Thomas went for more than 10 years — yes, over a decade — without asking a single question from the bench.

But when the Justices began telephone arguments by seniority under the COVID procedures in 2020, Thomas was suddenly energetic and involved, a veritable legal chatterbox.

That will likely continue as the justices begin their new term on the first Monday in October, keeping the seniority system for questions as they return to their courtroom.

One other change will also continue, at least for the next few months: the Supreme Court will allow live audio streaming of oral arguments, which was started during the virus outbreak.

“The public has a right to know what the most powerful court in our country is doing,” over 70 news and press organizations wrote in a September letter to the Chief Justice.

The Court has long resisted calls to make its proceedings more available; offering these live feeds is an important change for the press and public.

And if Clarence Thomas is going to speak during each and every case, then the American people should be able to tune in and listen.

It’s a win-win for everyone.

Jamie Dupree has covered national politics and the Congress from Washington, D.C. since the Reagan administration. His column appears weekly in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. For more, check out his Capitol Hill newsletter at http://jamiedupree.substack.com

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