U.S. Supreme Court justices donned their black robes and sat once more behind a mahogany bench in their grand courtroom on Monday as they resumed in-person oral arguments for the first time since COVID-19 pandemic disruptions started last year.
The nine justices were joined by lawyers, court staff and journalists in their spacious column-lined courtroom as they began a new nine-month term that includes major cases on abortion and gun rights. No members of the public were present.
The court was hearing arguments in two cases on Monday, beginning with a dispute between Mississippi and Tennessee over water rights, followed by a criminal case involving a man convicted of being a felon in possession of a firearm.
The court building has been closed to the public since March 2020 due to the pandemic, with the justices for the first time hearing oral arguments via teleconference.
The pandemic has forced some changes upon the tradition-bound court. Live audio of oral arguments, a practice the court had rejected until the pandemic made it a necessity in May 2020, continued to be provided on Monday.
The oral argument format also has been tweaked to allow for a lightning round of questions by each justice, a holdover from how the court conducted teleconference arguments.
The teleconference arguments were more structured than the traditional rough-and-tumble approach in which justices competed with each other to get a word in. Justice Clarence Thomas, who famously almost never spoke during in-person oral arguments, posed queries regularly during teleconference arguments. He asked questions right away in Monday's first argument as well.
The court, which has a 6-3 conservative majority, returns to action at a time when it is coming under close scrutiny after the justices on Sept. 1 allowed a restrictive Texas law that bans abortion after six weeks of pregnancy to go into effect.
Among the cases the justices are due to hear during their new term is a major challenge to abortion rights involving Mississippi's bid to revive a Republican-backed state law that bans the procedure after 15 weeks of pregnancy. Mississippi has asked the court to overturn the 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling that legalized abortion nationwide.
A few dozen people attended an anti-abortion rally outside the court on Monday. Father Frank Pavone, national director of Priests for Life, a group that opposes abortion, led a prayer calling for the end of the practice. He mentioned former President Donald Trump's three conservative Supreme Court appointees.
"All three, we are confident, will rule the right way," Pavone said.
The justices also are set during the term to hear a challenge backed by the National Rifle Association to New York state's restrictions on people carrying concealed handguns in public in a case that could further undermine firearms control efforts nationally.
Before hearing its first arguments of the term, the court acted on a number of appeals.
It cleared the way for New York to collect a $200 million surcharge imposed on opioid manufacturers and distributors to defray the state's costs arising from the deadly epidemic involving the powerful painkilling drugs. It also put an end to Oracle Corp's challenge to how the Pentagon awarded the government's now-canceled $10 billion JEDI cloud computing contract.
The justices also refused to hear a family's bid to revive a lawsuit against a New Jersey state trooper who fatally shot a mentally ill man who was pointing a gun at his own head in a case involving a legal defense that often protects officers from accusations of excessive force.
The court's term runs through the end of next June.
All nine justices, three of whom are over age 70, have been vaccinated against COVID-19, which has proven to be particularly dangerous among the elderly.
In a sign of how planning during the pandemic is constantly in flux, preparations for the new term were disrupted on Friday when Justice Brett Kavanaugh tested positive, although the court said he had no COVID-19 symptoms. Kavanaugh was participating remotely on Monday, the court said.
Written guidance for lawyers requires them to be tested for the coronavirus but there is no vaccine requirement.
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