Will live argument change the way we understand justice in the United States, or will greater accessibility to the high court’s inner workings increase our partisan divide?
It’s a big day. For the first time in history, anyone can listen in on Supreme Court oral argument as it happens. Yes, the public could previously go into the hallowed chamber, but only so many were able to obtain such privilege. Starting today, however, anyone with an internet connection can access the audio live.
First it should be noted that the Supreme Court, despite its pivotal importance in American history, is, in many ways, like any other court in the land. There is a docket and the litigants rightly seek to have their business adjudicated. The Court wants to get done with the Court’s business.
To that end, the use of teleconference technology makes sense, despite the way in which it goes against the usual SCOTUS reliance on tradition and precedent. Of greater import is the fact that they have opened it up to the public at large. As far as I can tell, there is no need to do this in order for the Court to get on with its case list during lockdown.
But I’m less concerned about the “why” of the matter and more concerned about the outcomes, if any, of this two week experiment. Maybe it is part of some greater plan to make the Court arguments more accessible to the citizenry. Or maybe the Court is just trying to do its part to provide content during lockdown.
SCOTUSblog.com has a nice roundup of reactions to the Court’s decision to make live hearings broadly available. There are mentions of the President’s ability to potentially “live tweet” the argument for a case where he is a litigant. Certainly, the fact that this move by the Court is unprecedented, brings SCOTUS more into public view. The Court has just made its megaphone that much larger.
This is interesting because we now live in a world where the loudest voice often gets the most accomplished. Amplification seems to be more important than the substance of the content. Whether the need or desire for greater amplification is actively sought, the practical outcome is that we have another arena, another thunderdome, where we can get all riled up over one side of an issue or the other.
At the same time, as I listen to arguments from earlier today (I didn’t even listen live!) regarding trademark law and generic terms, I don’t sense that the masses will be moved too much. That will obviously change a bit when cases regarding Trump, a woman’s right to choose, the Second Amendment and other contentious issues are aired live. Still, the potential for a splashy soundbite, even in the most controversial case, is low. Procedural norms are still too ingrained to make a “disruption” of Court procedures happen.
If only there were a way of getting more people to be curious about and engage with SCOTUS without it becoming a circus. Yes, the Court is highly politicized, particularly the process by which new Justices are selected. But most Americans spend too much time ignoring the Court. There has to be some sensible, middle ground whereby public interest goes up without SCOTUS becoming akin to the Trump White House. In that regard, live airing of oral arguments is a step (though small) in the right direction.