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Supreme Court to reopen to the public when justices return

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WASHINGTON >> The Supreme Court, which has been closed to the public since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic in March 2020, announced Wednesday that its courtroom would reopen when the justices return to the bench Monday.

“Masking in the courtroom for oral arguments will be optional,” the court’s announcement said. It added that “the building will otherwise be closed to the public until further notice.”

The court will retain live audio coverage of its arguments, an innovation it started in the spring of 2020, when it began hearing them over the telephone. It continued to provide an audio feed when the justices returned in the fall of 2021 to hear arguments before a few dozen law clerks, journalists and others in an otherwise empty courtroom.

The court’s isolation increased in May, after the leak of a draft opinion overturning Roe v. Wade and the protests that followed prompted security officials to erect an 8-foot fence around the courthouse. The fence came down in August.

In recent remarks at a judicial conference, Chief Justice John Roberts said he rued the image created by the fence.

“It was gut-wrenching every morning to drive into a Supreme Court with barricades around it,” he said, adding that he looked forward to returning to how the court had done things before the pandemic.

“When we take the bench the first Monday in October at 10 a.m., the public will be there to watch us,” Roberts said. “I think just moving forward from things that were unfortunate is the best way to respond to it.”

The pandemic altered the court’s approach to arguments, and some elements of those changes will remain when the public returns. In hearing arguments over the telephone, the justices asked questions one at a time, in order of seniority.

This had the benefit of prompting Justice Clarence Thomas, who once went a decade without asking a question from the bench, to become an active participant in that aspect of the court’s work. But the orderly questioning, a break from the court’s usual free-for-all approach, struck some observers as stilted and inert.

When the justices returned to the bench last year, they settled on a hybrid approach: a round of free-for-all questions followed by a round of one-by-one questions. Thomas participated in both kinds of questioning, generally asking the opening question in the first round.

The hybrid approach has fans and detractors, but all agree that it has made arguments longer. Before the pandemic, a typical argument lasted an hour. These days, it is not unusual for arguments to last almost twice as long.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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