Unlike Justice David Souter, who loathes the cameras to the point of some kind of pathology, Roberts embraces the lens, which adores him right back. Unlike Justice Clarence Thomas, whose view of all media is—perhaps understandably — constrained by an us/them isolationism, and unlike Justice Antonin Scalia, whose prickly contempt for the media keeps crashing head-on with his desire to have a voice in the broader national conversation about the law, only the chief understands the whole honey/vinegar problem.Despite the seeming perfection of John Roberts, we need to know how to resist the telegenic personality. You can be good on TV and still make bad decisions and bad on TV -- or completely TV-averse -- and be a great judge. Surely some great judges are ugly and gruff or unable to string words together in crisp TV-sized bites. And some judges who would overreach and abuse their power can look good and sound nice and friendly on the tube.
Individual politics and ideology notwithstanding, what's most important about this unprecedented new era of the Talk Show Jurist is just this: As Americans begin to see their justices as real people with real concerns and real dandruff, their fear of an isolated, elitist, and out-of-touch judiciary begins to recede. We may not all be completely sold on Roberts' idea of minimalism or on O'Connor's opposition to judicial oversight. But we are at least beginning to see our justices taking their case to the American people and grappling to justify their own role in this democracy. Trivial as it may sound, it's awfully nice to know that they care enough to finally talk to us.
But I do agree with Lithwick that it's good for the judges to talk to us and to help people understand the judicial role. What the judges say when they go on TV is -- to my ear -- an astoundingly basic and repetitive civics lesson, but based on my own experience, it is a lesson people find strangely difficult to absorb.