As the Supreme Court begins its term today (with a docket full of highly charged cases to consider) it also ushers in a new development that will make information about what goes on inside the Court a bit clearer to the public. No, there won't be cameras in the courtroom. (Just so we're clear, as far as Justice David Souter is concerned, cameras will enter the Court only when rolled over his dead body.) The Court did announce last month, however, that it will release transcripts of oral arguments on its Web site on the same day as they occur. OK, Now that might not sound like a revolution to you. But it's actually kind of a big deal. Richard Lazarus, a professor of law at Georgetown University and co-director of the school's Supreme Court Institute, described the move to the Washington Post in September as "a tremendous opening to the outside world." The new development "creates the potential for more intelligent speculation by more people than just those who were in the courtroom about how a particular case is going to come out," he said.
As far as correspondent Wyatt Andrews, who covers the Court for CBS News, is concerned, "Same-day transcripts will lead to more accurate reporting, period," he said. Previously, transcripts weren't immediately available, although in several high profile cases, the court has released same-day audio tapes of oral arguments. So those covering the Supreme Court had to function as their own stenographers, which has its obvious drawbacks.
Andrews explains: "During oral arguments, only one attorney per side faces the nine justices at any one time. Sometimes the question-and-answer exchanges between a Justice (or more than one) and the lone attorney fly by at warp speed and there is no way to quote these exchanges with perfection unless you are a stenographer--and I am not. More important, sometimes these warp speed exchanges get to the core of the case, and we (reporters) can't afford to be imprecise. Frequently after oral arguments I've been in conversations in which reporters are gathered to check with each other on how a particular exchange was spoken. Even then, you are left with quotations that are probably right, or almost certainly right. With same-day transcripts, we can get it absolutely right."
The Post describes the move as "the biggest step the court has taken in the direction of greater public access" since John Roberts became chief justice. The decision "reflects a positive trend-line with the Court," says Andrews. "The Court is not inclined to allow cameras in Court (which is wrong,) but has been inclined to release same-day audio tapes of oral arguments in high-interest cases (which is terrific.) Anything the Court does to bring it's proceedings closer to the people who own it, the American public, is a good thing. Now any citizen, not just the press and media, will be able to read with precision what was argued before the Court and can learn for themselves which Justices drilled down on which part of the case."