Listen, But Don't Look

Walter Reed Army Medical Center, Washington, DC, 2005/5/13
The Supreme Court's decision to let Americans hear Friday's historic Florida election argument on the same day is a huge first for a court so tradition-bound it still hands out quill pens as souvenirs to lawyers.

The argument won't be broadcast live: the court is releasing its tape recording shortly after the argument ends. As always, there will be no television or still cameras. will offer a Webcast of the tape's playback as it is fed from the Court. That is expected between 11:45 a.m. and 12 noon Eastern Time. Many CBS Radio Network stations will also carry the feed.

But it's another sign that the nation's highest court is edging into the electronic age. The justices opened their own Internet site last spring, and this week's online posting of briefs in the George W. Bush-Al Gore election war was another first for the court.

Contrast this with the Florida Supreme Court, which let the nation watch and listen live as it heard arguments Nov. 20 in Bush's bid to throw out hand-counted ballots that Gore hopes will help him win the presidency.

Florida's top court launched its Web site years ago, and anyone with the right computer equipment can see arguments live over the Internet or tap into the archives for arguments in past cases.

At the nation's highest court, the public and media are not allowed to bring cameras or tape recorders or other electronic equipment to argument sessions. People sitting in the public section are not even allowed to take notes.

In Florida, members of the public can bring cameras for snapshots of the court in action, so long as they don't use flash or create a disturbance.

"We adopted a philosophy that if people knew more about government because they could see it, they'd be a lot better off," said Gerald Kogan, the former Florida chief justice who launched the regular television coverage in 1997. "I think the Supreme Court of the United States is absolutely dead wrong in not doing it."

Most of the justices disagree. Justice David Souter said in 1996, "I think the case (against cameras and audio equipment) is so strong that I can tell you the day you see a camera come into our courtroom, it's going to roll over my dead body."

Souter said that when he was a judge in New Hampshire, camera coverage affected his behavior in that he believed questions he might ask from the bench would wind up as snippets on the evening news.

"I don't think it's a question of modern versus old-fashioned," said Boston University law professor Jack Beermann. "There is a view among a lot of judges that putting cameras in, especially a TV camera, changes the dynamics in a courtroom for the worse."

"Maybe the justices would feel they have to restrain some of their sharper questioning," Beermann said.

Columbia Univerity law professor Michael Dorf said the justices also believe, "If the public comes to see the justices as simply a collection of individuals with particular views about various issues, they will lose some of their capacity to speak as an institution."

There also is the question of privacy. "They justices are probably the most powerful anonymous people in the United States, and having their faces on television would undermine that," Dorf said.

Until this week, the court has waited until a term ended in summer before releasing audio tapes of that term's arguments. It began doing that only in 1993, after a college professor forced the issue by getting argument tapes under a scholarly research agreement and then making them public himself.

The Supreme Court has started posting its argument transcripts online, but only about 10 to 15 days after the argument. While transcripts of events in the rest of official Washington become available almost immediately, same-day Supreme Court transcripts are available only with payment of a large fee to the reporting service used by the court.

The justices' own attitudes toward computers vary. Souter cheerfully admits to being a computer illiterate. "You are talking with a Luddite when you're talking with me," he told a House subcommittee last spring. "Everybody around me is using computers."

Justice Clarence Thomas, on the other hand, told the same House panel, "Our job is rather portable with computers. We're able to work any place in the world."

By Laurie Asseo © 2000, The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed