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Term-End Transparency Report Shows Promising Signs Across FTC's "Fixes"

*** Read the report here: ***

Term-end cover

With the Supreme Court’s 2015-16 term and the political conventions having reached their ends, and with our recusalamicus and branch comparison reports out, Fix the Court is taking the opportunity to look at how the Supreme Court fared last term regarding transparency and accountability improvements.

“Unsurprisingly, there are still no cameras in the courtroom,” Fix the Court executive director Gabe Roth said. “But that does not mean there have not been other successes and takeaways from the past term that may be built upon in the future.”

To start, there is little question that awareness of the transparency issues that plague the court is at an all-time high. Consider these events from the past 10 months:

  • On book tour in September, Justice Stephen Breyer stopped by “The Late Show with Steven Colbert” and was pressed by the host to allow cameras in courtroom for oral arguments.
  • In February editorial writers and legal experts wrote essay after essay on the benefits of term limits for justices, given the chaos that followed the “actuarially predictable” death of Justice Antonin Scalia.
  • The thousands who showed up to the court in June for decision days in U.S. v. Texas and Whole Women’s Health v. Hellerstedt learned that no one is allowed to demonstrate on the court’s front plaza.
  • In July the public became keenly aware about the Code of Conduct for U.S. Judges, which prohibits most federal judges from commenting on political races and from which the justices are exempt. (You know the rest.)

But OT15 was not just about raising awareness. It was about taking action.

Since the fall, Fix the Court’s supporters have sent 3,876 letters to their U.S. senators asking them to push for the next Supreme Court justice, whoever he or she may be, to serve only 18 years and 3,321 letters to their U.S. representatives to advocate for expanded broadcast access to Supreme Court hearings. Between two petitions this year and last, 3,306 people told Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Stephen Breyer and Samuel Alito to dump their stocks in individual companies and place their holdings into blind trusts. These grassroots actions and others were amplified by the following:

  • In October the court announced it would publicize when slip opinions were revised, would end the practice of line-holding for members of the Supreme Court Bar and would fix link rot in its opinions. Simple fixes like these, which received great praise and have been quite useful, demonstrate that a little dose of transparency can go a long way – and that there is no reason why this trend should not continue.
  • In December we found that Roberts missed a stock conflict, and we believe that the error, coupled with Breyer’s similar oversight two months earlier, led to a three-justice stock selloff valued at up to $1.5 million in shares.
  • In February the American Bar Association adopted a resolution that supports placing cameras in the Supreme Court, also in February the Washington Post endorsed ending life tenure for the justices, and in July USA Today called on the court to adopt a code of conduct for the justices.
  • A congressional hearing on “judicial efficiency” last month turned into a bipartisan, full-throated critique of the federal judiciary and how its ethics, disclosure, travel and stock ownership policies fail to comport with modern expectations of openness.

“This, we believe, is what momentum looks like,” Roth added. “In the coming months and into the new Congress, Fix the Court will press the judicial and legislative branches to advance this promise of greater transparency.”

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