I believe we’re talking about the same woman. Justice…? She’s attractive, even sexy to the point of John Ashcroft insisting that her breasts be draped. But she’s usually depicted wearing a blindfold. So, why the rush to put Justice on television if she herself won’t be able to appreciate the benefits?
Assuming that there are benefits. Senator Arlen Specter thinks so, and that’s why he’s been pushing legislation that would televise the Supreme Court at work. Specter’s bill is cosponsored by Senators Charles Grassley (R-Iowa), Richard Durbin (D-Ill.), Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), Russell Feingold (D-Wis.) and John Cornyn (R-Texas). So, it’s not just coming from some dream that Specter had after watching The Real Housewives of Orange County.
Here’s Specter’s take: “The Supreme Court makes pronouncements on Constitutional and federal laws that have direct impacts on the rights of Americans. Those rights would be substantially enhanced by televising the oral arguments of the Court so that the public can see and hear the issues presented. With this information, the public would have insight into key issues and be better equipped to understand the impact of and reasons for the Court’s decisions.”
How do Supreme Court judges feel about it? Justice Anthony Kennedy, in testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee last week, literally pleaded against it. “Please senator, don’t introduce into the dynamics that I have with my colleagues the temptation, the insidious temptation, to think that one of my colleagues is trying to get a sound bite for the television. We don’t want that. Please don’t introduce this into our inter-collegial deliberations….We are judged by what we write in the federal reports.”
More than 20 years ago Chief Justice Warren Burger said cameras would enter the Supreme Court “over my dead body.” Justice David Souter repeated the Burger threat nine years ago.
Then there’s the other Spector. Superior Court Judge Larry Paul Fidler said the risk of media sideshows was far outweighed by the benefits of televising record producer Phil Spector’s trial and ruled accordingly. Fidler says that the public believes the wealthy get special treatment in courts, and televising the murder trial of a man in frilly velvet suits who has Dolly Parton’s hair will help correct that misperception. (I’m paraphrasing, but that’s the gist of his argument.)
At some point we seem to have adopted the notion that video always goes hand in hand with freedom. Maybe it was the Rodney King tape, or any one of hundreds of “gotcha” videos that seem to play to that belief. But the reality of video, if there ultimately is any one reality to all video, is that it reframes everything that it touches. Whatever else the Zapruder film of JFK’s assassination might be, it’s definitely that event viewed from only one angle. And you might argue that a similar thing happens with courtroom video. It’s a real time event, often long and boring, delivered only as television. Television is by nature reductive. Imagine your everyday life reduced to a limited, repeated series of fixed angles. A video image is also cruel and unfair. It judges those with tics or imperfections more harshly. Hey, look at how I laid into Phil Spector in the previous paragraph!
But Supreme Court acne isn’t the most disturbing aspect of Arlen Specter’s proposal. It’s the very idea that all things, including the critical and essential liberties protected inside the Supreme Court, should be reduced to video and reduced by video. We can read the words constructing the arguments that are the work product of the Supreme Court, and the oral arguments have been available on audio for years. Reducing that vital process to video would not only damage a precious freedom, it would also muck up the ecosystem that spawns future lawyers and judges. “Grandpa, how can I become a Supreme Court justice?” “Well, you can start by watching them on TV. I think they’re on right after Deal or No Deal.”