The Daily Item, Sunbury, PA

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October 28, 2013

At Supreme Court, tradition trumps technology, and transparency


Petitions to the court and amicus briefs in cases are not on the court's website; private entities such as the American Bar Association and the unaffiliated SCOTUSblog fill the gap.

The justices provide no reason when they recuse themselves from cases. Their public schedules are not routinely distributed.

"News of their whereabouts and their health is very hit-and-miss," Mauro said, "and dependent on how much or how little information the justices want to release."

All of this underscores a gap between the public's perception of the court as opaque and mysterious — as someone who covers the court, I'm often asked whether I'm "allowed to ever meet the justices" — and the justices' views that they are the most transparent of government institutions.

To them, it's the product that matters. They are fond of saying that all the information on which they base their monumental decisions is public record available to all who want to study it.

Alone among public officials, they must give detailed explanations for their decisions — each of the nine signs on to the majority opinion that provides the legal justifications for the ruling or issues a dissent with competing reasoning.

Their reasons for excluding cameras are well documented: They fear grandstanding by lawyers or a loss of decorum or simply a reluctance to change a procedure they think is working.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg has said that oral arguments are really a very small part of the process, that the real work in the case comes from the briefs that provide the detailed legal arguments. She said she fears televising the arguments would give the impression that the side with the most articulate lawyer should win.

Justice Antonin Scalia has objected to the idea that only "snippets" of the hearings would be shown. Justice Stephen Breyer said at a congressional hearing that it wasn't the lawyers he was worried about so much as himself and his fellow justices — seeing themselves on the evening news could lead them to alter the way they ask questions.

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