Friday, January 30, 2015

The revolution will not be televised

Forget about TV, you can't even get a seat inside the Supreme Court. From USA Today:
The dignified calm of the U.S. Supreme Court was broken recently when seven protesters, one after another, rose to shout epithets about the growing power of money in American politics — a trend the court has hastened through its rulings.

It was a rare moment of chaos in the court. When the episode ended, Chief Justice John Roberts told spectators, "We will now continue with our tradition of having open court in the Supreme Court."

Roberts' off-the-cuff remark was significant, reminding the public that the nation's highest court is indeed open — and openness can sometimes be messy in a democracy. But as the court continues to add blockbuster cases to its docket, the unfortunate narrow scope of the court's openness deserves scrutiny.

In the next three months, the Supreme Court will hear arguments on three extraordinary landmark issues: same-sex marriage, the future of Obamacare and the constitutionality of lethal injections for capital punishment.

Roberts is correct that the court will be open when those cases are argued — but only to 200 or so members of the public lucky enough to obtain seats. Many will wait in line for days in advance. If past experience is repeated, wealthy individuals who want seats will pay thousands of dollars for others to wait in line for them — an unseemly business that tarnishes the court's image of openness.

Why will only a relative handful of people be able to witness history at the court? Because, as open as it is, the court has long refused to let cameras record or broadcast its proceedings. We have written about this before, but the court's policy continues to amaze people — especially young people, who take transparency and access for granted.

Recent polls have shown strong approval for cameras in the Supreme Court (71%) and record-high agreement that the court should be more open and transparent generally (95%).

The group Fix the Court, which advocates for greater transparency at the Supreme Court, posted an amusing video recently in which random Americans were told that the Super Bowl will not be televised. The interviewees refused to believe it — and, no worries, it will be. But when those interviewed were told that a slightly more important institution — namely, the Supreme Court — is never televised, they were incredulous, and upset.

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