Supreme Court Postpones Next Set of Arguments Amid Outbreak

Greg Stohr and Chris Dolmetsch

(Bloomberg) -- The U.S. Supreme Court postponed a two-week argument session that had been set to start next week, making a highly unusual calendar change as the coronavirus outbreak spreads across the country.

It’s the first time in decades, and perhaps a century, that the court has canceled a courtroom session because of a public-health scare.

The court had been set to hear arguments in 11 cases during the weeks of March 23 and March 30. Those cases include an $8 billion copyright clash between Alphabet Inc.’s Google and Oracle Corp., set for argument March 24.

The court was also planning March 31 arguments on President Donald Trump’s challenge to subpoenas for his financial information issued by three House committees and a New York grand jury. Trump is trying to block his banks and accounting firm from turning over the records.

The court said in a statement it will “examine the options for rescheduling those cases in due course in light of the developing circumstances.”

The move follows similar steps by courts around the country, as judges delayed trials and modified argument procedures to avoid or limit in-person sessions.

The Supreme Court said other business will proceed as scheduled. The justices will hold their planned private conference this Friday, though some justices may participate by telephone. The court said it will issue a list of orders in pending cases as scheduled next Monday.

Two of the court’s nine members are in their 80s -- Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who turned 87 Sunday, and Justice Stephen Breyer, 81. Four others are 65 or older: Justice Clarence Thomas, 71; Justice Samuel Alito, 69; Justice Sonia Sotomayor, 65; and Chief Justice John Roberts, 65. Elderly people are at increased risk of dying should they contract the coronavirus.

Spanish Flu

The Supreme Court has long been loath to change its public schedule. The court postponed cases for several weeks during the 1918 Spanish flu epidemic and shortened its argument calendars in 1793 and 1798 because of yellow fever outbreaks. In 2001, the justices held arguments for a week at a federal appeals court in Washington after anthrax was discovered in a Supreme Court mail facility.

The court building closed to the general public last week but remains open for official business. The court said Monday it is “expanding remote working capabilities to reduce the number of employees in the building, consistent with public health guidance.”

In addition to the now-postponed March sitting, the court has one more two-week argument session on its calendar, currently set to start April 20. That session includes a case that could affect the 2020 presidential election, a fight over “faithless electors” who refuse to cast their Electoral College votes for the candidate who won their state’s balloting.

The court in April is also planning to consider the Trump administration’s bid to give employers and universities the broad right to claim a religious or moral exemption from the Obamacare requirement that they offer free birth control through their health-care plans.

Chicago and New York

The Supreme Court’s statement made no mention of plans for opinions. The court normally announces opinions from the bench but may now need to change that practice.

The justices are working on rulings in already-argued cases involving LGBT job discrimination, the Puerto Rico oversight board, the DACA deferred-deportation program, New York City gun-transportation rules, abortion restrictions and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.

The nine-month term typically ends in late June, though the court could extend the term into July or beyond if needed.

Elsewhere, Cook County, Illinois, which includes Chicago, is delaying almost all cases for 30 days starting Tuesday, according to a statement from the chief judge. The federal court in Chicago also ordered the rescheduling of trials and hearings due to be held from Tuesday until April 3 and extended civil litigation deadlines by 21 days.

The New York state court system on Sunday was ordered to postpone all non-essential functions as of 5 p.m. Monday, although all ongoing trials will continue to their conclusions.

The state’s top court, the seven-judge Court of Appeals in Albany, is still scheduled to hear arguments for cases in its March term starting Tuesday, although some of them could be conducted remotely, according to spokesman Gary Spencer.

In St. Louis, one of the busiest state dockets in the country for product liability lawsuits, the city circuit court canceled all jury trials until April 13.

Grand Juries

Federal courts in Maryland, Virginia, New Jersey and Texas became the latest to postpone trials in response to the coronavirus outbreak. The federal district court in Alexandria, Virginia, postponed all criminal and civil jury trials until April 17. Its Maryland counterpart delayed all new jury trials until April 24 and also suspended ongoing matters until March 27, unless judges overseeing individual cases ordered otherwise. In New Jersey, all federal jury trials scheduled to begin before April 30 have been postponed.

Massachusetts and Connecticut federal courts took similar action last week. The federal court in San Antonio, Texas, put off all new trials until May 1. In a concession, however, to the district’s “extremely large criminal caseload,” the court said it would continue grand jury proceedings that issue charges.

State and federal courts in Chicago are likewise carrying on with grand juries as normal. New York said currently seated grand juries would continue, but new ones would not be convened.

The California Supreme Court suspended in-person oral arguments. Although arguments will continue to be held in the court’s San Francisco courtroom, lawyers will now appear through electronic means.

The U.S. International Trade Commission, which hears a variety of cross-border tariff and intellectual property disputes, has postponed all hearings for 60 days.

(Updates with information from additional courts)

--With assistance from Tim Bross and Christopher Yasiejko.

To contact the reporters on this story: Greg Stohr in Washington at gstohr@bloomberg.net;Chris Dolmetsch in Federal Court in Manhattan at cdolmetsch@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Joe Sobczyk at jsobczyk@bloomberg.net, Laurie Asséo, Bill Faries

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