Because of the pandemic, the Supreme Court has taken the unprecedented step of holding arguments via telephone, and also letting those arguments be heard by the public via C-SPAN. (Ordinarily, one can attend Supreme Court sessions, but maybe only about 100 people or so are let in to the Washington, D.C., courtroom.) Today the cases being heard were about the subpoenas served on Trump by both House committees and by the New York City D.A.’s office.
I knew these arguments would be the subject of news reports, and since I had the chance, I wanted to be able to listen in myself and get my own sense of what was going on. So I had my TV on just after 10 a.m.
It was fascinating. First the president’s lawyers and then the solicitor general, representing the government, made their arguments in about five minutes. Then, starting with Chief Justice Roberts and then going by seniority (Clarence Thomas, Ruth Bader Ginsberg, Stephen Breyer, Samuel Alito, Sonia Sotomayor, Elena Kagan, Neil Gorsuch, and Brett Kavanaugh—that sequence is now indelibly in my mind), each justice had five minutes to ask questions and have the attorneys respond. Roberts must have had a timer, because when five minutes was up, he called the next justice, even if the attorney was in the middle of responding.
The justices, of course, are supposed to be nonpartisan, but we know the general political leaning of almost every one of them. So it was instructive to see a conservative judge ask a question from the more liberal side, and realize that the justice was giving the president’s lawyer the opportunity to make the points that the conservative justice wanted to hear. Sometimes, if a lawyer was stopped in the middle of answering a question because a justice’s time was up, the next justice would follow up to get the lawyer to finish his (and all of the lawyers were men) point.
In the cases concerning the congressional subpoenas, there were lots of questions comparing this case to both the lawsuits against Clinton and the Watergate hearings into Nixon. Trump’s lawyers often talked about having to protect future presidents from political “harassment,” but one could argue that the case against Trump is already the third, and the one against Clinton was just as much if not more harassment than the case against Trump.
It wasn’t easy to see which way the justices were leaning, though I sense that their decision will be on as narrow grounds as possible.
If you have any chance at all, do try to listen to these arguments on C-SPAN, either on TV or laptop or phone. They only last until around 1 p.m. If you have teenage children, ask them to listen for a while as well. It may seem boring or hard to follow, but the process is part of our government, and rarely has it been so readily available to the general public.
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