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The Supreme Court postponed next week’s arguments due to coronavirus precautions

It appears to be the first time this has happened in over a century.

Supreme Court justices arriving for the State of the Union address in Washington, DC, on February 4, 2020.
Brendan Smialowski/AFP via Getty Images
Ian Millhiser is a senior correspondent at Vox, where he focuses on the Supreme Court, the Constitution, and the decline of liberal democracy in the United States. He received a JD from Duke University and is the author of two books on the Supreme Court.

The Supreme Court announced on Monday that “in keeping with public health precautions recommended in response to COVID-19,” it will postpone the oral arguments that were supposed to take place over the next two weeks.

That includes several major religion cases and a trio of cases that could potentially give President Trump sweeping new immunity from congressional oversight or from criminal investigations.

Though the Court did not announce when the arguments will take place, it appears that the justices still intend to hold arguments at some point in the future. According to the press release announcing the postponement, “the Court will examine the options for rescheduling those cases in due course in light of the developing circumstances.”

Though not unprecedented, this postponement appears to be exceedingly rare. The Court named only two other instances when it took a similar action, both more than a century ago: “The Court postponed scheduled arguments for October 1918 in response to the Spanish flu epidemic. The Court also shortened its argument calendars in August 1793 and August 1798 in response to yellow fever outbreaks.”

Monday’s announcement follows a similar announcement last week that the Court was closing its building to the public. These precautions will help protect the health of the justices themselves, who may be at heightened risk due to their age. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg turned 87 on Sunday, and Justice Stephen Breyer is 81. Justice Clarence Thomas is 71, and Justice Samuel Alito turns 70 next month.

Despite the Court’s decision on oral arguments, it appears that the justices will continue to conduct business, possibly in person. The Court says that it “will hold its regularly scheduled Conference on Friday, March 20,” though “some Justices may participate remotely by telephone.”

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