As most of us already know, the Supreme Court this week will take up the issue of the highly publicized health care reform passed two years ago. And for the few people who haven’t heard that, rest assured they will not be able to find a big enough rock to shield them from the coming onslaught of coverage it will receive. That brings up an interesting question about this process. Is it really a good thing that we will be far more informed than ever before on this case as it is hatched out in the Court?
The Washington Post gives a good primer to this case and their article included the following sentence I was very surprised to see: “And while cameras are still forbidden, the court has changed its rules to release audiotape and transcripts of the arguments each day.” This means we will all be privy to the stances taken by the justices during the case and, in all likelihood, get some extra posturing since they know the recorders will be on to catch every word. Some people might argue they won’t be susceptible to the extra attention because they aren’t political, don’t stand for office, and have no reason to play themselves up to the public. But how can we say that is true?
It’s no secret the Supreme Court can and has been swayed by public opinion when deciding controversial issues. A look at their decisions regarding civil rights in the 1800s where slavery and then segregation laws were upheld show even the figuratively “blind” court can see polling data. And now they have added the temptation of making a spectacle during the hearing in order to hear themselves played back on the news that night. They might not be elected politicians but they are so surrounded by that environment it will be hard for them not to abuse the opportunity. Remember Eric Cantor printing off the health care bill and sitting it in front of him during the televised bipartisan meeting to try to hammer out some issues in the proposal? (And I assume he had that printed out on the thickest paper he could find for added effect. Take that tree-hugging hippies!) I kind of wonder if Thomas or Scalia will attempt to read the entire law into the record just to satisfy the opponents’ insatiable hunger for pointing out its length.
Whether the rule changes and inevitable news sound bytes brought about by it will have any effect on the ultimate decision will be impossible to measure. And it is also not the first time a high profile case has been covered closely in the 24-hour news cycle and internet era. But this added exposure really does nothing good for the outcome and only furthers the potential for the Supreme Court to become even more political than it already has shown. Some may argue (myself included) the government needs more transparency in certain areas in the interest of the public and the Court is no different.
But the Supreme Court is different because it isn’t a place for political ideology and posturing. We have access to it through reporters who can still tell us what is going on everyday the Court is in session and we can always read the opinions rendered by the justices. Increasing the direct link from the justices’ mouths to the public through more media exposure only increases the likelihood of politics getting in the way of good decision making. The Court does let ideology get in the way at times and it is understandable certain cases will arise where the decision is not always black and white. But we are supposed to expect certain things from the highest court in the land. They are supposed to be “blind”. They are supposed to properly review the law and the precedent set before it if any exist. They are supposed to uphold the Constitution in the interest of the public. They are supposed to make decisions where no one can tell which party the president represented who appointed them to their seat. They are supposed to dish out justice in a non-partisan way where very few would question their ultimate decisions.
They are supposed to do those things…but sometimes they don’t. And it could be getting worse.