When Sonia Sotomayor is sworn in she will join the other Justices who follow the Carlin precedent.
The late comedian George Carlin, used to do a hilarious routine he called “Heavy Mysteries. It was about the obnoxious kid in Catechism class who would test the priest’s patience with ridiculous questions.
When told it was a sin not to perform religious duty by a certain Sunday, his hand would shoot up and he’d say “…but then you cross the international dateline…and then it’s Monday, too late”. Would it still be a sin? Which brings us to the Supreme Court.
Think of the justices as nine people in black robes who bedevil lawyers with what amount to “International Dateline” questions, a constant barrage of “What If’s” (Well eight. Clarence Thomas never says anything.) Their dancing on the heads of pins is great entertainment. Too bad you can’t watch it.
On Saturday Sonia Sotomayor will be sworn in as the first Hispanic justice. As hugely significant as that is, it’s not the only “First”. Her public swearing in (after a private one) will be made available to television. That’s never happened before.
What a great sign! Maybe this is a first step toward allowing cameras to broadcast the Supremes performing live in session.
I won’t even pretend to be objective about this. As a TV twinkie, I have long argued for cameras wherever government operates. After all, if surveillance monitors and videotapes capture nearly every moment of our private lives why not show the public actions by so-called public officials.
We’ve come a long way with that. Television coverage of trials is routine, to say nothing of the minute-by-minute House and Senate proceedings that drone on CSpan.
A last holdout is the Supreme Court. While there have been audio tapes sporadically made available after a hearing on a particularly controversial matter…no cameras.
Justice David Souter said they’d be let in “Over my dead body”. As of today, Justice David Souter becomes “David WHO?” His very-much-alive- body returns to New Hampshire. Perhaps he takes his obsolete attitude with him.
Wouldn’t it be lovely if the cameras that show Justice Sotomayor being sworn in could show her live, badgering an attorney from her new highest bench , along with her colleagues, and let the world see Justice Thomas just sitting there like a bump on a log?
Sotomayor told the Senators at her confirmation, she’s had “positive experiences” with televised proceedings. To one degree or another her new colleagues have been more negative about the idea.
Some have echoed the opposition heard from others: The public can’t understand complex legal intricacies, the media will turn important proceedings into sound bites, TV commentators will distort what’s going on, it will undermine the mystique so necessary to maintain respect. Then there’s my personal favorite: The lawyers and justices would showboat for the cameras.
Those are all problems, but they’re all the kind we have in a democracy that claims to be open. How open are we if we allow the highest level of one constitutional branch go unseen as it exerts such a profound influence on our lives? As for that argument about theatrics from attorneys and justices, doesn’t that say more about them than anything else?
It’s really too bad that the Supreme Court 1978 arguments about censoring George Carlin’s “Seven Words You Can Never See on Television” couldn’t be seen on television. Maybe, more than 30 years later, with a new justice on the court, the TV sunshine could be allowed to shine on the proceedings when the justices are dragged into modern times.