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When Justice Sotomayor joined the Court, I became a reasonably avid "Court Watcher." Thanks to her, I can report that at least one non-lawyer makes a pastime out of reading oral argument transcripts. I've also discovered it's a rather mysterious and intriguing institution. It goes without saying how significant the impact of its decisions are to the lives of ordinary citizens.

Having been "spoiled" by the level of access to the goings-on in the House and Senate available to us via C-SPAN has naturally made me a proponent of cameras in the Court. Considering how adamantly against the idea her predecessor Justice David Souter was, I, like many others I'm sure, remember being encouraged by this:

Sotomayor, one of the court's youngest members, sounded open to the idea during her confirmation hearings. While remaining noncommittal, she said she had had "good experiences" with cameras in the courtroom and would relay those positive experiences to the rest of the court.
So it came as a bit of a surprise when I read this:
Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor said she no longer supports bringing cameras into the courtroom, a reversal from comments she made during her confirmation hearings.

Sotomayor told a crowd in New York that allowing television cameras to capture the court's oral arguments would do more harm than good, according to a report in New York magazine.

“I think the process could be more misleading than helpful,” she said. “It's like reading tea leaves. I think if people analyzed it, it is true that in almost every argument you can find a hint of what every judge would rule. But most justices are actually probing all the arguments."
The "reading of tea leaves" that occurs after oral arguments seems to happen regardless. Our tendency towards making a "horse race" out of anything and everything extends to the Supreme Court as well, especially considering how differently it operates compared to the elected branches of government.

Many people report on the Court's activities, and numerous articles appear shortly after oral argument which indeed try to "get a feel" for how the Justices might end-up voting on any given case. The fact that the Court usually releases the "written" transcripts the very same day the arguments are heard, and the actual audio recordings of them at the end of the week, certainly provides the opportunity for analysis as well.

An exception was made when the Affordable Care Act cases were argued — both the "written" transcripts and the audio were released the same day, due to the high-profile nature of the these ObamaCare-related cases.

Guess what happened? Republicans used a doctored version of Solicitor General Donald Verelli's comments in an ad. Now, it's difficult to say whether or not Republicans would have stooped to this level if the recordings were released in their normal fashion. With this particular case, I have a feeling they would have regardless — Republicans aren't bashful when it comes to exploiting anything they can for political purposes.

After having read the reasoning behind Justice Sotomayor's change-of-heart, I'm a little less certain about the benefit of cameras in the Court than I was before. That I hold Justice Sotomayor in such high regard makes it easier to see the other side of the issue, though I'm still torn.

On the one hand, reading tea leaves is inevitable. Allowing cameras in the Court really won't cause speculation to occur that isn't already happening.  Transparent government is good government, and citizens deserve a better view of how this profoundly important branch of government operates, for better or for worse. Does maintaining a removed, "impartial," and apolitical Court require that citizens be denied a visual record of an already seldom-seen branch of their government?

On the other hand, what's the point in further contributing to the relentless attempts at politicizing the Court that are already occurring from both outside, and as it appears in recent days, inside the Court? Watching them grilling counsel would accomplish little more than what has already happened in the House and Senate: Justices self-aware of their behavior enough to inadvertently exacerbate the politicization of the Court. Do they really need one more factor potentially influencing their decision-making process?

Yes and no...

As a Democrat, it's hard not to see the benefit of cameras in the Courtroom when Justice Scalia spouts off as he did last week, while at the same time rejecting it situations where Republicans would use it as subject material for their cut-and-paste hack jobs misrepresenting Democrats. Decidedly partisan, I admit.

The distinction, however, is the same one that's always apparent when comparing the behavior of Democrats and Republicans: No "doctoring" was necessary with Justice Scalia's remarks — they stood just fine on their own, while Republicans must distort the truth to fit their narrative.

So you can see that I am of two minds about it now — it cuts both ways. I would like to hear your thoughts on the matter in the comments, if you care to share them.


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