The outbreak of COVID-19 in the United States has transformed from a looming risk to an outright pandemic. The CDC has emphasized the need to engage in “social distancing” and avoid group settings in order to combat the spread of the virus. The government-announced public and private restrictions become seemingly more stringent with each passing day.
The U.S. Supreme Court, as an institution, has long been set in its ways. For example, on oral argument days, the Justices habitually meet in person to discuss cases and take lunch together in their ornate private dining room. The midday meal is not fancy cuisine – it comes from the Court’s public cafeteria – the same fare available to anyone who visits the grounds at One First Street.
The “Judicial Handshake” has also been a tradition since the days of Chief Justice Melville W. Fuller in the late 19th century:
When the Justices assemble to go on the Bench each day and at the beginning of the private Conferences at which they discuss decisions, each Justice shakes hands with each of the other eight. Chief Justice Fuller instituted the practice as a reminder that differences of opinion on the Court did not preclude overall harmony of purpose. https://www.supremecourt.gov/about/traditions.aspx
Until this month, the Court had remained open for the past 100 years. But on March 16, Chief Justice Roberts cancelled the eleven remaining oral arguments set for the month, citing precedent from the last similar postponements—delays prompted by the 1918 Spanish flu and the 18th-century yellow fever outbreak.
On March 23, the Justices did not take the bench to announce their decisions, a sharp break with their practice for cases in which oral arguments were heard, according to Adam Liptak of the New York Times:
[Some] of the justices also participated by phone during their usual private conference to discuss which appeals to hear, said Kathleen Arberg, a court spokeswoman. She did not say which justices were working from home.
The justices who did turn up for the conference skipped a longstanding custom at the court, that of each justice shaking hands with every other justice each time they convene.
Several of the justices are in the demographic group thought to be most at risk from the coronavirus: notably Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who is 87, and Justice Stephen G. Breyer, who is 81. Four other members of the court — Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Justices Clarence Thomas, Samuel A. Alito Jr. and Sonia Sotomayor — are 65 or older. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/03/23/us/supreme-court-insanity-defense-race-copyright.html
March’s postponed argument session included the dispute over President Donald Trump’s financial records. Still, the Court is expected to continue to release orders in pending cases and new opinions. New rulings in argued cases could come early next week.
The next scheduled arguments at the Court are set for April 20, but whether those will take place as planned is unclear.