October 11, 2005

"There's something sick about making entertainment out of real people's legal problems."

So says Justice Scalia, saying why he opposes television cameras at Supreme Court oral arguments.
"We don't want to become entertainment," he said. "I think there's something sick about making entertainment out of real people's legal problems. I don't like it in the lower courts, and I don't particularly like it in the Supreme Court."
Oh, come on. When Court TV shows a murder trial, that might absorb us in an unhealthy way, and wrongly make victims into a spectacle for cheap entertainment, but by the time a case is argued in the Supreme Court, the victims are out of view and the issue has been abstracted. What is left is a high-level debate about ideas and the meaning of texts. The public would be lifted up and educated by hearing the arguments.

UPDATE: I suspect that what Scalia is concerned about is not so much those "real people" with legal problems, but the image of the justices. If we could see them pushing with questions and interrupting decent lawyers, maybe regular people would find them narcissistic, pompous, rude, or just plain strange. They'd be ridiculed. "The Daily Show" would run clips. Some folks like me would watch the uncut show on C-Span, but most would experience the Court in the context of politics and humor. The question is whether that might be good for them.

24 comments:

griffin d. politico dog said...

I agree. It's going to be more educational, like congressional hearings on C-Span, than entertainment, like Fox. I'm sure there is no way to sex up Supreme Court hearings for the mass public. Though, I would like to see Roberts point at someone, and say in a Donald voice, "You lose!"

Sloanasaurus said...

I disagree. The OJ Simpson trial proved that the courtroom WILL become entertainment if cameras are allowed. The cameras should remain out. If people want to know what goes on, there should be a transcript available.

Guy Murray said...

Well said. Perhaps,this should be a question asked of all future Supreme Court nominees, "Do you think Supreme Court sessions should be televised?" Then, again, Justice Scalia's position is not all that surprising, given that he sits in an institution that places quill pens on the counsel table. It is in a bit of a time warp!

Ann Althouse said...

Sloan: How is that a proper response to my post? The Simpson case was a murder trial, not an appellate argument. Face up to my distinction.

Sloanasaurus said...

The distinction doesn't matter.

My point is that when people are in front of a camera they behave differently....and often unnaturally.

The first time Scalia is seen scratching his nose, its going to be all over John Stewart's show and all over the country. After that the Justices will become mindful of the camera.....

bearing said...

I don't much care about whether the public is "entertained" or not (though I agree with Ann that the potential educational value is great). It's hard to believe that the comportment of the justices themselves, and the lawyers who argue before them, won't be affected by the presence of cameras.

It's not so much that people will be watching them live; it's that from the broadcasts, sound clips will be carefully excised, and played on the evening news. Those clips, devoid of context, is what most people will see.

The question is, would the changes be for better or worse?

(I like the idea of hearing the actual justices' voices, though. Right now they all sound like Nina Totenberg in my head.)

Ann Althouse said...

Bearing: You can hear the oral arguments (albeit not for the newest cases) here.

Timothy K. Morris said...

The Michigan Supreme Court televises oral arguments on the Michigan Goverment Television (MGTV)cable system, and has done so for a number of years. The cable feed is generally picked up by local cable systems as part of their public service/education programing. It hasn't seemed to make any difference in the behavior of either the justices or the attorneys appearing before them.

Wade_Garrett said...

I think it would be fascinating to be able to watch oral arguments in the Supreme Court on television. Also, it would make a great teaching tool.

The OJ Simpson trial was a circus for any number of reasons. Trial courts are where testimony is heard, evidence is presented, etc. There are no television dramas about appellate practice precisely because it is not dramatic. But I think that lawyers and general policy wonks would get a lot out of it.

Nick said...

And why would they care if they're ridiculed by others for their behavior on the bench? Isn't that the point of the lifetime appointment? Its not like they have to run for re-election.

Freeman Hunt said...

I don't think it's a good idea, but only because our media is so dishonest. I agree with bearing that clips would be taken entirely out of context, and such clips would be the only things most people would see.

I think you'd also see a lot of cases being played to the cameras. "Sure, we may lose at the Supreme Court, but we can use the opportunity to win in the court of public opinion."

XWL said...

On the one hand, transcripts or audio should be enough given that law is mainly a textual matter, but on the other hand we are not textual creatures, we are sensual beasts and to deny our eyes in our highest court is to deny our ability to witness the processes that lead to momentous decisions with as much sense as possible.

(and if that extra sense leads to the occaisonal nonsense than so be it, members of the Supreme Court should have thick enough skin to take it)

Then again, the law could be sausage like and best enjoyed as an end product with as little thought as possible to the process that goes into making them (except for the professionals whose job it is to make sure that the sausage comes out right and juicy)

Crank said...

1. Scalia fearing people watching him at argument is like Michael Jordan being afraid of people getting to watch him play basketball. Frankly, if people watched more of Scalia at work, they'd start wondering why their elected representatives are so dreary and inarticulate by comparison.

2. Didn't someone ask Roberts what he thought about televising? As the Chief, his opinion matters a lot.

Goesh said...

It being the highest Court in the land, I think the average person would not regard it as mere entertainment, but, I can just hear the stupid pundits and commentators. Can't you just hear the commentary? 'it appeared as if Justice Thomas was bored' 'the Chief Justice kept fiddling with a pen, waiting for a break - he may have bladder problems' 'Justice Scalia kept looking to the side, obviously in complete disagreement with the other Justices' - the SC has nothing to fear from the general Public itself.

Sloanasaurus said...

The only thing that could be good about television broadcasting of oral arguments is determining whether a judge has fallen into incomeptence from getting too old or from illness. From what we have heard about prior justices (T. Marshall and Brennan), it is probable that the politics of the court would keep incompetent Justices on when they should be removed.

We should require that each Justice take a "test" each year. It should be a public test of engaging in some sort of public debate.

Tristram said...

Rahter than not wanting the attention, i reather think they may be corrupted by it.
The idea of lawyers (maybe with future public office in mind) and the Justices sparring/poststuring grandstanding in in the Supreme Court is distasteful.

OTOH, CSPAN demonstrating how the Supreme Court really works seems to me to be like the sunshince being the best disinfectent...let the people see what really goes on, and perhaps there view of the Supreme Court and it Justices will mature, and the these confirmation hearings may be more useful.

Eddie said...

After the OJ Simpson trial, I don't think we should ever televise a trial again, particularily criminal one's. This isn't a Kangaroo Court, this is people's lives.

Simon said...

What I found most bizarre about that interview was how tired and sad Scalia looked. Given that he barely ever does television interviews - granted, if Maria Bartiromo offers to have a conversation with you, you say yes, period - he did not seem like a man who wanted to be there.

Simon said...

Regarding television cameras, I think a better argument was offered by Scalia fairly recently. What will happen is that people will tune in for bits and pieces only, and the news media will run only selected samples which will create a distorted picture of what the court really does.

I would love to watch the Supreme Court at work. I'm interested. But I don't find that a compelling argument for televising their work.

Simon said...

to deny our eyes in our highest court is to deny our ability to witness the processes that lead to momentous decisions with as much sense as possible.

Nobody is denying your eyes. If you want to watch an oral argument at the Supreme Court, nobody is stopping you. Admission, in most cases, is open to the public. Of course, if you're going to make the trip to DC, you're already sufficiently invested that you're going to stay for the whole thing, so your attention won't wander and you won't just tune in and out for a few minutes while channel-hopping.

bearbee said...

Video 6/19/97 John Roberts talks to Georgetown U Law students re: SC process and procedures.

http://www.c-span.org/watch/
Left side click America & the Courts then scroll down

knoxgirl said...

I too am afraid that the mere presence of cameras will affect people's behavior and the proceedings. I want to think our Supreme Court justices are above all that, but it's too risky.

Simon said...

Justice Souter has apparently said that television cameras will arrive in the supreme court chamber only when they roll in over his dead body, or words to that effect. This places me in the uncomfortable position about evincing a view that might prevent an early Souter departure, but I think it's right. For have we not read before, the terrifying words "Justice Scalia, with whom Justice Souter [and, even, Justice Ginsburg], dissenting"?

Dwilkers said...

Long time lurker, only my second or third post Ann.

I am astonished that you are taking the position that it would be a good thing for television cameras to invade the SCOTUS.

Anyone really interested can already "hear" the arguments on CSPAN. I've done it many times. What is gained from an information standpoint by adding cameras?

Does anyone seriously think the behavior of the attorneys and the judge in the OJ trial was NOT affected by the presence of television in the court? Or does anyone think that effect was benign?

Putting cameras in the SCOTUS would inevitably lead to the justices posturing for the camera. Whatever educational benefit derived would be more than offset by the dumbing down effect created by television posturing. It is a truly horrible idea.

The SCOTUS is the last bastion of our government not affected by our culture of television idol worship. It is far too serious an institution to risk corrupting it in this way and for little or no benefit at all. We'd all be far better off to leave it as it is.