Supreme Court justices love to talk about the importance of public engagement. The American people, they insist, need to understand what the Court does and why. They write books and articles, deliver lectures, and give interviews, often with the express intention of informing the public about the Court’s work. Yet when it comes to actually reforming the way the Court operates to better serve these goals, the members of the Supreme Court sing a different tune. They hold tight to traditional practices, such as their process of releasing opinions, that make press coverage of the Court a uniquely challenging task. Not only do the justices refuse to allow cameras in the courtroom, but they delay release of audio of oral arguments until the end of each week and audio of opinion announcements until the beginning of the following Term.
While I think all of these practices should be reconsidered, for most of them I can see that there are some arguments on the side of tradition. (For a terrific discussion of these issues, see the video of this year’s Constitution Day event at Chicago-Kent.) But that last one—the delay of releasing audio of opinion announcements for several months—is pretty much indefensible. What possible purpose does this policy serve? In justifying their refusal to allow any live broadcast (video or audio) of oral arguments, the justices often talk about their fear of the media reducing complex points to misleading sound bites or of grandstanding by lawyers and justices. The sound-bite concern is minimal in the context of opinion announcements, though. The justices are summarizing their written opinions, so they have already taken the sound-biting into their own hands. Any possible risk of selective quotation would seem to be the same, or even less, than the risk of improperly quoting an excerpt from their written opinion. As for judicial grandstanding, I just have trouble seeing this as a problem. If anything, as I have noted in previous ISCOTUS posts, the justices tend to tone down some of the more accusatory language from their written opinions when reading a dissent from the bench. Anyway, a bit of grandstanding would not be a bad thing if one of the goals of an opinion announcement is to convey the importance of the issues at stake.