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Jewish World Review Nov. 30, 2000 / 3 Kislev, 5761

Mark Lane

Mark Lane
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Courts should be on-line, on-TV and in public -- AFTERNOON TELEVISION last week was Montel Williams, Ricki Lake, "True Hollywood Stories" and the Florida Supreme Court.

That's one more good reason to hold your next constitutional crisis in the Sunshine State.

Say what you want about the ability of Florida voters to follow simple directions, at least the aftermath is being thrashed out in the open. All the court proceedings in this mess have been televised, both in trial courts and appellate courts.

Consider the Supreme Court arguments. If this had been a federal case, television viewers would have seen video of an imposing columned building -- or in the case of the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, an unimposing cast-iron entranceway. In front of the building, a reporter would speak with some campaign functionary there to provide the day's spin. Around them would swirl bused-in sign-wavers.

Another reporter would eventually summarize the oral arguments in broad brushstrokes. Then back to the studio for more predictable partisan posturing from the usual group of screaming heads. (Mere talking heads are passe in post election commentary.)

In the process, nobody would have much of an idea of what went into the court's deliberations.

But anyone who followed the 2 1/2 hours of oral argument and questioning from the bench in Tallahassee saw something unusual happening: men and women trying to find a rational solution to this electoral impasse in a manner consistent with conflicting laws, precedents and practices.

Finally, we heard the grown-ups talking.

Even if you didn't grasp all legal nuances -- I, for one, had to think real hard every time they talked about the difference between "contesting" and "challenging" elections -- you had to go away impressed at the gravity of the proceedings, the seriousness of the questioning and the effort to get to the heart of the matter.

The justices mercifully cut off lawyers' orations when they rhapsodized on the glorious and sacred democratic process and prodded counsels to cut to the chase -- constiutional requirements, deadlines and available legal options.

There are some people who believe the majesty of the law is served by a carefully cultivated air of mystery. A number of them sit on the U.S. Supreme Court.

As a result the U.S. Supreme Court is represented to the public by cartoony artist sketches and staccato bits of reporter-transcribed testimony. No tape recorders allowed. Not in federal appellate courts. Not in federal trial courts.

I don't buy the mystic grandeur of the law argument. When people see matters settled by invisible forces, they suspect a con. That's human nature.

By contrast, those who doubted the seriousness with which the Florida Supreme Court approached its work, those who wondered if they were impartially weighing the range of options, just had to watch its exchanges Monday to be reassured. (And not just on television, either, but thanks to the court's innovative acceptance of technology, in streaming Internet video.)

The alternative, a ruling suddenly dropped into a clerk's "in" basket from on high, would do little to defuse the pervading atmosphere of partisan distrust.

When we can't see and hear court proceedings for ourselves, we hear Chris Matthews and Rush Limbaugh instead of reasoned debate. We see hyperventilating spinners instead of inquiring judges. We see bused-in political operatives posing as protesters mugging for the camera rather than the workings of the law.

That's why there should be cameras in courtrooms. All of them. Everywhere. The U.S. Supreme Court too. The U.S. Supreme Court particularly. Anything less leaves a vacuum that is filled by partisan hired guns, conspiracy theorists and cable-news bloviators.

In Florida, we may not know who really won the presidential race, but at least we'll know how the outcome came about. The rest of the country will not be able to say that with the same amount of confidence because of the secrecy of the U.S. Supreme Court.

Comment on JWR contributor Mark Lane's column by clicking here.

11/29/00: Where did all these solution providers come from?
11/20/00: Giving it the old Electoral College try
11/10/00: Ballot messes a Florida tradition
11/07/00: Vote naked! Cool idea, but is it progress?
11/02/00: Semi-whistle while you para-work
10/27/00: Decided by the undecided


© 2000, M. R. Lane