Democracy cannot function optimally unless citizens are willing to listen to one another, even - or especially - when they do not agree. It is both an understatement and a sad comment on American politics to say that there isn't a whole lot of real listening going on in Washington right now, and hasn't been for some time. Therefore, it is worthy of note when a group of powerful men and women actually promise they will remain silent and listen as others speak, even if it's only for a couple of minutes.

We refer to the Supreme Court of the United States, which has published new guidance for lawyers, just in time for the first oral argument of the 2019-2020 term on Monday. Henceforth, the court advises, justices "generally will not question lead counsel . . . during the first two minutes of argument. The white light on the lectern will illuminate briefly at the end of this period to signal the start of questioning."

Giving lawyers two minutes to advocate without interruption may not seem like much, but those familiar with recent trends at the Supreme Court will recognize that it would represent a real change. In the court's early years, of course, hearings could extend for days, with lawyers sometimes speaking for hours before any justice broke in with a question or comment. In modern times, oral argument has shrunk dramatically in duration - 30 minutes for each side, typically - while growing in conversational intensity. The Supreme Court today is what lawyers call a "hot bench"; justices bombard counsel with questions almost from the moment they stand up. What's more, the justices' interventions often seem calculated to make arguments, or to test the reactions of their own colleagues, rather than to elicit information from the lawyers. Sometimes it devolves into crosstalk.

In a contentious recent case on the Trump administration's plan to ask about citizenship in the 2020 Census, for example, a mere 16 seconds elapsed between the time Noel Francisco, the solicitor general of the United States, began talking (he uttered one full sentence) and the time Justice Sonia Sotomayor weighed in with a comment. Even in a far less prominent case, Franchise Tax Board of California v. Hyatt, counsel for the two sides got less than 55 seconds each before the questions commenced.

The justices' words are obviously valuable, both intrinsically and for the rare public hints they offer as to the court's thinking; by no means would we prefer a quiet "cold bench." Nor will the pending change revolutionize a decisional process that is, in any event, influenced more by written briefs than by counsel's live presentations.

Still, amid a political culture of escalating loudness, the justices have taken a symbolic step back toward respect and attention. Good for them.