Jewish World Review
Nov. 29, 2000 / 2 Kislev, 5761
Let the sun shine
WHEN WILL the high and mighty
hermits on the U.S. Supreme Court
get over themselves and get with the
21st century? Unlike the judiciaries
in 47 states, the highest court in the
land still refuses to allow its hearings to be
televised. Thanks to snooty traditions,
unbridled egos, and specious fears, the
Supreme Court's nine crusty justices remain
secluded members of the nation's most
inaccessible branch of government.
Brian Lamb, pioneering chairman of the
C-SPAN public affairs network, asked the
court last week for permission to broadcast
Texas Gov. George W. Bush's appeal of
Florida's selective manual recounts of
machine ballots. Who better than C-SPAN --
unedited, unobtrusive, and uncluttered by the
idle chatter of network mannequins -- to
provide real-time audio and video of the
hearing? "We respectfully suggest that
televised coverage ... would be an immense
public service and would help the country
understand and accept the outcome of the
election," Lamb wrote in a letter to Chief
Justice William Rehnquist.
Despite the obvious educational and civic
benefits, the court tersely rejected C-SPAN's
request. So Bush's case will be heard this
Friday, but only an exclusive clique of the legal and media elite will
witness it. The audience for oral arguments in the country's most
important legal cases is limited to members of the Supreme Court
bar, special friends of the justices, parties to the lawsuits being
heard, and a select group of print journalists.
The rest of the general public must stand in line, sometimes
camping out overnight on the courtroom's cold marble steps, for the
brief privilege of observing the bench proceedings. Regular citizens
can't take pencils, paper, laptops, or recording devices into the
courtroom. The disembodied voices of the Supremes can barely be
distinguished from the back row. If you're just a patriotic tourist who
wants to catch a glimpse of the famed jurists in person, good luck.
You'll barely be able to spot the top of Chief Justice Rehnquist's
head or Justice Sandra Day O'Connor's ruffles.
A first-year law student would be laughed out of the classroom if he
gave the reasons the Supreme Court gives for clamping down on
public access. Reclusive Supreme Court Justice David Souter says
court TV cameras will have to roll over his "dead body." He and
many other justices say they fear the O.J. factor, arguing that the
presence of cameras will turn the courtroom into a circus and cause
both judges and lawyers to tailor their behavior and remarks for the
Cameras weren't to blame for Judge Lance Ito's spinelessness and
lack of control in Los Angeles. Cameras merely magnify flaws that
already exist; they aren't the cause. Moreover, TV sensationalism
that infects coverage of criminal trials would be greatly mitigated at
the federal appellate level, where the court deliberates for months
before issuing decisions.
As for the concern that the justices' remarks will be selectively
soundbited by the media, haven't these camera-shy Supremes ever
read the New York Times' legal coverage (led by a reporter who
marched in a pro-abortion rally during the height of legal challenges
to the Roe v. Wade decision)?
Instead of diminishing respect for the judicial branch, increased
access would deepen citizens' appreciation for the rule of law and
those who administer it. But as C-SPAN's Brian Lamb noted in a
National Press Club speech a few years ago, "this is a town that's
made on control. This is control central. Everybody in this town lives
around the word 'control.' And no one wants to give it up when they
don't have to. That's why the Supreme Court won't let television
The Supremes certainly don't mind when newspaper photographers
snap their pictures at the latest Beltway book party or think-tank
gala. If they don't like being exposed to the unwashed masses, they
should join monasteries. The cult of secrecy has no place in a
government of, by, and for the people. Judicial mystique is for the
JWR contributor Michelle Malkin can be reached by clicking here.
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© 2000, Creators Syndicate