United States

U.S. Supreme Court to resume in-person oral arguments

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The United States Supreme Court in Washington, U.S., May 17, 2021. REUTERS/Evelyn Hockstein

WASHINGTON, Sept 8 (Reuters) - The U.S. Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in person for the first time since the COVID-19 pandemic started when its new session begins in October, the nation's top judicial body announced on Wednesday.

The court building has been closed to the public since March 2020 due to the pandemic, with the justices hearing oral arguments via teleconference for the first time ever.

"The court will continue to closely monitor public health guidance in determining plans," the court said in a statement, adding that the building would be open only for official business - not the public - amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic "until further notice."

Live audio of oral arguments, a practice the court began when it started hearing its cases via teleconference in May 2020, will continue, the statement said. Courtroom access will be limited to the nine justices, court personnel, lawyers and members of the Supreme Court press corps, it added.

The court's term begins on Oct. 4 and runs through the end of next June.

Among the cases the justices are due to hear is a major challenge to abortion rights involving Mississippi's bid to revive a Republican-backed state law that bans the procedure after 15 weeks of pregnancy. They also are set to hear a challenge backed by the National Rifle Association to New York state's restrictions on people carrying concealed handguns in public in a case that could further undermine firearms control efforts nationally.

The court, which has a 6-3 conservative majority, is due to hear the gun case on Nov. 3. A date for the abortion case has not yet been scheduled.

The court's decision to shut its building to the public and change the format for its arguments represented one of the innumerable ways the pandemic reshaped life in the United States.

In-person oral arguments in March and April of 2020 were canceled and the justices instead heard 10 cases by teleconference in May 2020.

The court then heard the all its cases during the 2020-2021 term using the same method. There were few technological glitches in the arguments by teleconference. The new format prompted Justice Clarence Thomas to regularly pose questions to lawyers during the arguments after usually remaining silent when arguments are held in-person.

All nine justices, three of whom are over age 70, have been vaccinated to protect against COVID-19, an illness that has proven to be particularly dangerous among the elderly.

Reporting by Lawrence Hurley; writing by Lawrence Hurley and Susan Heavey; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama and Will Dunham

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