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Courting an Audience

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Allow me to paraphrase an old joke: A prominent psychiatrist suddenly dies at a young age. When he arrives at the Pearly Gates, he is outraged, sputtering to St. Peter: “Why, why, why did you take me before my time!?”
“We’ve been having this problem with God,” St. Peter explains. “He thinks he’s a Supreme Court justice.”
Sad to say, from what glimmers we get of the Supremes, that doesn’t seem far-fetched. They spend a lot of time convincing each other that they are above accountability. How else to explain the way they dig in against televising their proceedings. It boils down to this: Americans simply are not qualified to watch them doing their public business.
Think that’s exaggerated? Then let’s ponder the words of Justice Sonia Sotomayor, who recently told Charlie Rose she has gone from supporting video coverage to opposing it because the people don’t “understand what the process is.” Justice Elena Kagan is similarly discovering the joys of insularity. At her confirmation hearing in 2010, she was all for letting it hang out in TV land, declaring that “would be a great thing for the institution, and more important, I think it would be a great thing for the American people.” Two years later at a University of Michigan appearance, she was backpedaling with “I have a few worries, including that people might play to the camera. Sometimes you see that when you watch congressional hearings.”
Apparently, her Senate confirmation hearing left a profound impression. Either that or she has come under the influence of the high court’s great backward thinker, Antonin Scalia. He has an amazing sway over his colleagues. Where President Barack Obama misspoke about a “Jedi mind meld” with Congress, Scalia sometimes seems to capture his fellow justices with his Luddite mind meld.


He is an “originalist” from the legal school that believes the Constitution should be extrapolated strictly on the basis of what the Founding Fathers intended at the time. Social progress is relatively unimportant. So when it comes to the First Amendment, he blithely argues “The First Amendment has nothing to do with whether we have to televise our proceedings.” Furthermore, “it doesn’t require us to...”
Obviously that’s because there wasn’t much TV in 1791. So no mention of it in the Bill of Rights. Of course, there was no mention of slavery either, which is a point commonly made by those who find the originalist philosophy a convenient way to justify the denial of fundamental rights.
It helps to explain the startling choice of words Justice Scalia used during arguments over the Voting Rights Act. He complained that its protections against Jim Crow malice at the polling booth are simply a “perpetuation of racial entitlement.” Therefore, people of color have some nerve believing they are, uh, entitled to cast their ballots freely. His remark reminiscent of a time when minorities were supposed to “know their place.”
We can’t determine for sure whether that was as bigoted as it reads or whether it was another of his sophomoric provocative shots designed to stir the pot. We might have a better idea if we had watched him say it -- as televising might generally allow a better idea of what these guys are doing with their lifetime appointments. It is probably true that TV would create a lot of grandstanding and razzmatazz. In fact, I’ve suggested that when they finally go live, Chief Justice John Roberts should be introduced with “And now, heeeeeere’s Johnny.” Or alternatively, when these momentous legal matters are debated, they can find attorneys who can rise above showboating.
At least the fact that there is so much hot-dogging in the other televised branches of our government has allowed our citizens to form the appropriate low opinion of our politicians. Maybe that’s why the Supremes don’t want cameras. They worry they might be exposed as mere mortals.

© 2013 Bob Franken
Distributed by King Features Syndicate, Inc.


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