Supreme Court Hangs Up on Phone Arguments

The setting sun shines on the Supreme Court building on Capitol Hill in Washington. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky/File)

The Supreme Court has started the final day of arguments it has scheduled to hear by telephone because of the coronavirus pandemic. Wednesday’s cases are about electors who vote for the president.

Over the past two weeks, the court has heard five other days of telephone arguments. On Tuesday it heard the biggest cases, involving President Donald Trump’s tax returns.

Bret Chiafalo, a plaintiff in a case before the U.S. Supreme Court, at Lake Stickney Park near his home in Lynnwood, Washington, State, May 9, 2020. (Reuters/Lindsey Wasson/File Photo)

The cases Wednesday center on whether an elector must choose the candidate who won the popular vote in a state or can choose another candidate. They involve electors in Washington and Colorado who didn’t vote for 2016 vote winner Hillary Clinton.

Arguments are scheduled to last two hours. The court has again urged lawyers to use a landline, not a cellphone. The justices ask questions in order of seniority, after Chief Justice John Roberts goes first.

The phone arguments have gone smoothly, even when Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg participated from a Baltimore hospital room last week and Justice Stephen Breyer was briefly kicked off the line. The audio has been made available live to audiences around the world.

The attorneys speaking before the Supreme Court on its last scheduled day of phone arguments include a law school professor and a state solicitor general.

Harvard Law School professor Lawrence Lessig is representing Washington electors in Wednesday’s arguments, taking place by phone because of the coronavirus.

Lessig favors broad reforms to voting, redistricting the way campaigns are funded. Lessig briefly sought the 2016 Democratic nomination and called for presidential electors to support Clinton because she won the national popular vote four years ago.

Washington state Solicitor General Noah Purcell addressed the court after Lessig. Purcell previously argued against President Donald Trump’s travel ban.

The Supreme Court justices have invoked fears of bribery and chaos to suggest they think states can require presidential electors to back their states’ popular vote winner in the Electoral College.

That’s the major takeaway from the first round of arguments by telephone Wednesday, dealing with whether electors are bound to choose the person who won the popular vote. The first case heard involves three Washington state electors who in 2016 voted for Colin Powell for president rather than the state’s vote winner, Hillary Clinton. Those electors were fined $1,000.

After a short break the justices are hearing the second case, which is about the same topic.

The second case involves Colorado elector Micheal Baca. In 2016, he voted for John Kasich rather than Hillary Clinton, who won the state’s popular vote. Baca was removed as an elector as a result. He and two other electors sued.

Lawrence Lessig represented Washington electors. Lessig argued that there have been only a handful of faithless electors in American history, with no bearing on the outcome of an election.

Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh Kavanaugh said: “But we have to look forward and just being realistic, judges are going to worry about chaos.”

At the end of today’s session, the Supreme Court has hung up the phone. The high court heard arguments in 10 cases by telephone over six days as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.

Audio of the arguments was broadcast live, a first for the court. The cases the justices heard had been previously postponed because of the virus. Additional previously scheduled cases have been postponed to the fall.

It’s unclear whether the court’s experience with live audio will change arguments going forward. Before the pandemic, transcripts of the court’s arguments were available on the same day, but audio of arguments was generally provided on the Friday after arguments were held.

The court traditionally finishes its work by late June and then takes a break from hearing arguments until October. The justices have not said whether they will return to the courtroom in October.

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