As the United States Supreme Court begins another Term this month, calls for the Court to open its oral arguments to cameras are getting louder. The Court has traditionally brushed off these demands, and there is little reason to believe that it will respond differently this year. But there is yet hope for supporters of court transparency: the state courts continue to lead the way in allowing broadcasts of courtroom proceedings. Two examples from just this week illustrate the point:
Justice Stephen Breyer appeared on a television interview with CBS This Morning‘s Norah O’Donnell last Thursday night, portions of which were shown on the television program on Friday morning. Breyer argued that cameras should not be placed in the Court in part because it could change the behavior of lawyers or Justices during argument. The full transcript and some video is here.
This is a silly position. Perhaps cameras would affect behavior a bit, but that change would be marginal at best. The Supreme Court already (and thankfully) has live audiences for its oral arguments — is a lawyer arguing before the Court and more than a hundred observers really likely to be affected by the presence of a camera or two? Nor have the Justices shown any individual reticence to talk to large crowds, or in front of cameras.
Maybe the Supreme Court should just hold its oral arguments in a private room, with only counsel attending, lest the presence of anyone else in the room make the Justices uncomfortable. Or maybe they should embrace the transparency in adjudication that historically has made the United States judicial system the envy of the world.
A new poll conducted by researchers at Penn State University has found that the U.S. Supreme Court continues to enjoy high levels of public legitimacy, notwithstanding the belief by many respondents that Justices should not serve on the Court for life.
The linked story contains additional information, including many comments on the Court from respondents. Ignore the idiotic headline about “Trump’s America,” which seems de rigeur for all mainstream media stories these days, even if (as here) they have nothing to do with the President. The poll itself is worth noting.
Almost 30 years after the PACER system was implemented for the federal district courts, and more than 15 years after district court dockets were placed on the web, the U.S. Supreme Court has announced that it will adopt its own electronic filing system. The system goes into effect this November.
The Court’s announcement states that “Once the system is in place, virtually all new filings will be accessible without cost to the public and legal community.” I read that to mean that reviewing and downloading docket materials will be free, which would be an improvement on the costly PACER system. Let’s hope that is what is intended.
Thanks to recent state legislation, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals will began posting video of oral arguments online later this year. The legislation may also open the door for the state’s highest court for criminal matters to broadcast some oral arguments live.
The members of the court do not sound particularly thrilled about the move, although they are trying to maintain a neutral stance now that the legislation has gone through. Said Presiding Judge Sharon Keller: “We decided years ago that we don’t want cameras in courtroom, but a lot of those judges are gone now, and I don’t know what the new judges think. But it does seem to be the wave of the future.”
Former Texas Chief Justice Wallace Jefferson strongly supported the move, which also increases pressure on the United States Supreme Court to permit video recording of its oral arguments.
Speaking at the American Constitution Society’s annual convention, Justice Stephen Breyer again expressed skepticism about video recording the Court’s oral arguments. Breyer stated that some of his friends have told him he does “ridiculous things” during argument, and that the presence of cameras could change the tone of the session.
I will leave an assessment of a public figure questioning public access to issues of public importance, all while speaking at a quasi-public event, as an exercise for the reader.
Late last week, the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts released the annual financial disclosure reports for the Justices of the Supreme Court. It turns out that the members of the Court are wealthy, with most being millionaires several times over. This is unsurprising. Indeed, it would have been shocking if the Justices — all of whom are Ivy League graduates who enjoyed successful careers before joining the Court, and many of whom are in the late stages of their working life — had not amassed considerable wealth. Yet the news spurred a wide range of stories in the mainstream media and in the blogosphere.
Yes, they’re rich. Why do we care?