Good morning, and thank you to Congressmen Quigley, Poe, Connolly and Nadler for introducing this bill and for bringing attention to one of the core institutional problems facing our third branch today.
My name is Gabe Roth, and I am executive director of Fix the Court, a nonprofit that advocates for institutional changes – like cameras and live audio – that would build a more open and accountable U.S. Supreme Court.
Now, the nine justices are fond of saying they don’t pay attention public opinion, but there’s no question that each of them is cognizant of how popular the cameras issue is. They’re asked about it on “Morning Joe” and on “The Late Show” and when they give talks at civic institutions and law schools across the country.
While cameras are favored by the public three-to-one, that’s not really the polling I want the justices to pay attention to. Instead, I want to be sure they know the American public believes this court to be the most polarized and politicized in our history – and that the court’s approval rating is at its lowest level ever.
Why? Because I think allowing broadcast media into the courtroom would actually reverse this unfortunate downward trend. Instead of nine individuals, often split five to four along partisan lines, unable to agree on marriage or health care or voting rights, the public would see – the vast majority of the time – an institution that takes its job seriously and carefully and creatively weighs the issues before it.
Take this past Monday’s case on when it’s okay for an American to sue a foreign company if that company – in this case, a European railroad – is operated by a foreign government. If you were able to witness that case, you’d see Justices Kennedy and Scalia playing off points made by Justices Kagan and Sotomayor, Chief Justice Roberts asking a hypothetical related to broken landing gear on a JFK-to-Vienna flight and Justice Kagan asking one about whom she could sue if she slipped and fell in the Vienna Opera House. It was classic SCOTUS.
Unfortunately, reading the transcript later that day or hearing the audio a week later would not do it justice – you have to watch the justices’ body language and intonations to get at the heart of the issues at play.
And that’s especially true given this (holds up iPhone). Because at a time when every aspect of our lives can be filmed and uploaded for the world to see, only video yields the desired effects of increasing government transparency – and of building up the public’s trust in a quintessential, taxpayer-funded institution.
You may ask: why this bill, why the public outcry for cameras? Will that do anything? Well, maybe.
As the Supreme Court began its new term earlier this week, it announced three policy changes that came about as a direct result of public pressure. As of Monday, the court has banned “line-standers” from holding a place in line for members of the Supreme Court bar, the court will now publicize when justices make post-release changes to their opinions, and it will ensure that all the Internet links cited in opinions are active and accurate.
To be sure, these reforms are modest. But more than that, they demonstrate that the justices pay attention to what’s being written about them – all of the aforementioned issues were covered extensively in the press – and that they have the capacity to make changes that reflect modern times.
A great constitutional scholar, Doug Kendall, who sadly just passed away, used to say, “Oral argument at the Supreme Court is one of the most impressive things our government does.” That was the case this past Monday, and it will be again later this term when the justices grapple with affirmative action, the death penalty and public unions. Now if only all of us could see it…
The bill being introduced today would give all Americans – whether they live in Chicago like me, in Texas like Judge Poe’s constituents or across the river the Congressman Connolly’s – the rudimentary and technologically feasible ability to witness powerful government actors in action.
I’m hopeful that with this group of bipartisan leaders here today – and with support from all corners of the country – that we can make this happen. Thank you.