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By: Matthew Foree
This week, the United States Supreme Court announced that it would hear oral arguments remotely for the first time in its history. The Court will hear oral arguments by telephone conference on certain dates in May in a limited number of cases that had previously been postponed. The cases are to be assigned dates for argument after confirming counsel’s availability.
The Court’s press release provides that “[i]n keeping with public health guidance in response to COVID-19, the Justices and counsel will all participate remotely.” Interestingly, the Court stated that it “anticipates providing a live audio feed of these arguments to news media” and that “[d]etails will be shared as they become available.”
Among the cases the Court is set to hear in May is Barr v. American Association of Political Consultants, Inc., which concerns a constitutional challenge to the Telephone Consumer Protection Act (“TCPA”). The Court has just scheduled argument in the Barr case for Wednesday, May 6, 2020.The TCPA generally prohibits calls to a cellular telephone using either an “automatic telephone dialing system” (ATDS) or an “artificial or prerecorded voice,” unless the call is made with the prior express consent of the recipient. In a 2015 amendment to the TCPA, Congress exempted from this prohibition calls “made solely to collect a debt owed to or guaranteed by the United States.”
In 2016, the Respondents in Barr initiated a declaratory judgment action against the Federal Communications Commission (“FCC”) and the Attorney General, arguing that the TCPA’s content-based ban on protected speech violated the First Amendment. They sought declaratory relief and an injunction restraining the Government from enforcing the ban against them. The case made its way to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, which found a First Amendment violation and determined that the government-debt exception was severable from the rest of the TCPA.
As we have discussed previously, TCPA litigation often centers around whether calls were made using an ATDS. The current litigation landscape concerning the interpretation of the definition of ATDS has caused a split in the Circuit Courts and generated significant confusion that continues to this day. In Barr, Respondents argue that the TCPA’s automated call restriction, not just the government-debt exception, violates the First Amendment. Accordingly, practitioners in this area are anxious for the ruling on this matter, particularly as it relates to how far the Supreme Court will go to resolve the constitutional issue, which can have a major impact on the statute and TCPA litigation moving forward.
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