Thursday, October 21, 2021

Supreme Court returns to court for a new term after 19 months of pandemic absence

WASHINGTON (AP) – The Supreme Court has begun a significant new term in the courtroom after nearly 19 months of absence due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Abortion, guns and religion are all on the agenda of a right-leaning court, including three judges appointed by former President Donald Trump.

Eight of the nine judges took the bench on Monday at 10 a.m. EDT for the first arguments for the new term. Justice Brett Kavanaugh is running away from his home after testing positive for COVID-19 late last week. The court said Kavanaugh, who was vaccinated in January, is not showing any symptoms. All other judges have also been vaccinated.

For the persistence of the virus, the court remains closed to the public. Court hallways, usually in the morning when the court is in session, were completely silent. A portrait of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who died just a year earlier, hangs in a main aisle, directly across from her friend and colleague, who died in 2016, Justice Antonin Scalia. As visitors enter the building from its north side, Ginsburg’s portrait is on the left, Scalia’s on the right – as death in life.

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Only lawyers involved in the cases and journalists who regularly cover the court are on hand, and those not arguing have to wear a mask. The court also requires negative COVID-19 tests from lawyers and journalists who want to be in the courtroom.

The court said that lawyers who test positive will be able to present their arguments through telephone. This is how the lawyers were arguing before the court due to the pandemic.

The public can listen to the proceedings live, another change made during the pandemic, but for the first time on Monday, live audio of the courtroom proceedings is available through a link on the court’s website.

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Returning to the courtroom makes it much less likely that extraneous noises, such as those that sounded like a flushing toilet, that might have been heard during an argument last year, would intrude.

Monday’s cases are not among the much-anticipated disputes that the court will referee for this period. One case is a fight between Mississippi and Tennessee over water in an underground aquifer that sits beneath parts of both states. The controversy stretched to 2005 when Mississippi first claimed that Memphis was pumping water from the Mississippi portion of the aquifer. Tennessee says the water doesn’t work that way, adding that the aquifer is an interstate resource that must be shared fairly.

The second involves a mandatory minimum prison sentence of 15 years for a person with a prior criminal record who was convicted of possessing a gun. Federal law prohibits criminals from possessing firearms.

The matter arises under the Armed Carrier Criminal Act and the issue is whether the theft of items from 10 units in a mini storage facility in a single day should be counted as a punishment or 10, which the lower courts found that the person Has been made eligible for a long prison sentence.

With the exception of Kavanaugh, the judges were together in the courtroom Friday for the formal swearing-in of Justice Amy Connie Barrett, Trump’s third appointee. All the judges are tested regularly and all Kavanaugh tested negative before Friday’s ceremony.

Only Justice Sonia Sotomayor, who has diabetes since childhood, wore a mask during the brief ceremony.

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