Until now, the justices have monitored courtroom entries, allowing only enough people to fill the 100 or so seats in the room but prohibiting news cameras and streaming media.
The top court also has an official Web site, where cases and legal papers are posted. Audio recordings of oral arguments have until now been handled by the National Archive, which can take months to make them available to the public.
Yet on Friday, the Web site got a makeover, making public almost immediately all the legal documents in the high-interest case, Bush v. Palm Beach County Canvassing Board. It also promised to post a transcript of the proceedings within hours of the 90-minute session.
"The Court released the tape on the expedited basis and also made the...written transcript available on an expedited basis in recognition of the intense public interest in the case," said Kathy Arberg, spokeswoman for the Supreme Court.
The Supreme Court said that this is the first time an audiotape of a hearing has ever been expedited. The Supreme Court normally has the tapes maintained in the Marshall's Office for a year or so, and then they are transferred to the National Archives. After that, the tapes are released.
The tape is available as a video stream with graphics and other information added to the audio portion.
The move pleased law professors and constitutional law attorneys, especially those living on the West Coast, far from the Supreme Court steps.
"Any move the court makes to make itself more accessible to the public is a good one," said Vikram David Amar, a constitutional law professor at Hastings College of the Law in San Francisco.
"The Supreme Court has been a little too worried about preserving its secrecy and mystique," he said while listening to a taped version of Friday morning's proceedings on the radio. "Changes in technology have the inevitable affect of opening up public institutions."
Neil Shapiro, a constitutional law attorney based in San Francisco, suggested that the court may have loosened up following the example of the Florida Supreme Court's actions of a week ago when a hearing on the presidential vote recount was streamed on the court's official site.
Unlike the shy nature of the U.S. Supreme Court, Florida's top court began broadcasting its oral arguments on the Internet in 1997, making it a pioneer of sorts.
"If there were ever an argument to open up the court, this is it," Shapiro said, noting the intense public interest in the post-election presidential maneuverings. "It's also good for the public to see that judges at that level are not party faithful."
But at least one legal scholar is hoping the case will not further open proceedings by allowing TV camera crews in the courthouse.
Barbara Bennett Woodhouse, who runs a virtual supreme court Web page as a teaching tool for her students at the University of Pennsylvania Law School, said cameras in the court would disrupt a lawyer's concentration while arguing before the nine Supreme Court justices.
"We can't have cameras and flash bulbs going off," she said. "Having a tape recording was a good compromise between opening up to the public and not turning the Supreme Court into a media circus."
News.com's Gwendolyn Mariano contributed to this report.