Supreme Court Judges Shunning Tv

Posted: May 23, 1993

WASHINGTON — For months, students at a California law school eagerly awaited a graduation speech by a legal headliner - Supreme Court Justice Harry A. Blackmun, who wrote the 1973 abortion ruling that provoked one of the great American social conflicts of the 20th century.

But last week, 12 days before the ceremony, Blackmun backed out because television cameras would be there.

"He (Blackmun) explained to me that he was concerned about sound bites," said Bruce Wolk, law school dean at the University of California at Davis.

At the Supreme Court, isolation, secrecy, tradition and distaste for television coverage are legendary.

Most public figures chase public attention. Not Supreme Court justices. They dodge it.

While Congress and most executive agencies have moved into the sunshine, the Supreme Court remains the most secretive branch of government.

"Congress and the President are elected and need continued public support, but the court is not elected and is not supposed to base its decisions on public opinion," explained D. Grier Stephenson, professor of government at Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster, Pa. "The whole purpose is to insulate the justices from political pressures."

And that, he said, leads to inevitable conflict with the news media.

"Any institution which operates, as the court does, with a great deal of internal secrecy is obviously going to create a gulf with institutions dedicated to sharing information with the public," Stephenson said.

Few people see the justices or can even name most of them.

Once their televised and sometimes stormy Senate confirmation hearings are history, the justices vanish into lifetime black-robed jobs in their Corinthian-columned cloister. They rarely grant interviews and almost always refuse to comment.

In their marble-and-mahogany chamber, where there are no more than 150 public seats, the justices appeared 35 days this term to question lawyers on legal issues.

Anyone who was not there can read the official transcript. But it will not disclose which justice asked which question. That's a traditional secret.

The justices reach decisions in closed-door conferences, primarily expressing their views in published opinions in 130 to 140 cases a year. But they turn away thousands of other cases - about 98 percent of their docket - without explanation.

When they disqualify themselves from cases, seven justices refuse to explain. Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist and Justice Sandra Day O'Connor are the exceptions.

And most justices decline to announce their public appearances in advance and refuse to provide copies of their speeches.

"They give the same speech over and over," one Supreme Court insider explained. "They don't want people to know the speech they're giving has been given many times before. And they don't want to have to write a new one."

Many justices just do not like television, other sources say. State courts have admitted TV cameras for years, and one cable channel specializes in court coverage. But the Supreme Court remains overwhelmingly opposed to cameras in its courtroom.

"When justices schedule public appearances, I ask them about cameras and they say they prefer that they not be there," said Tim O'Brien, who covers the court for ABC News. "They don't like to make news off the bench."

Antonin Scalia, the court's most conservative member, bars all radio and TV coverage of his public appearances. Rehnquist usually allows it. Other

justices make "case-by-case decisions," court spokeswoman Toni House said.

Blackmun's soundbite anxiety makes no sense to C-Span, a cable station that broadcasts public events in their entirety.

"If there's a concern about being taken out of context, that's not us," said C-Span vice president Terry Murphy. It is unjust that "our cameras are excluded when the print press is not" - even though newspapers publish only selected portions of a justice's speech, Murphy said.

In February, Justice Anthony M. Kennedy rejected C-Span coverage of his appearance at a judges' workshop. More recently, O'Connor refused to allow the broadcast of her brief remarks at the dedication of a Washington day-care center.

Last month in Baltimore, C-Span cameras recorded an entire judicial conference - almost. The exception: a Scalia speech. C-Span shut down its equipment at his request. The videotape showed Scalia being introduced - but not saying a word.

At the University of Miami Law School a few years ago, TV crews showed up for a Scalia lecture to law students. He refused to go on until the cameras

went off.

Scalia "needs a refresher course in the Constitution, with special emphasis on the First Amendment," a TV reporter remarked afterward.

Why is Scalia so adamant? He has cited "our tradition of avoiding publicity." He makes no exceptions because, he explained to one journalist, ''a rule is a rule" and "I am . . . big on rules."

Moreover, Scalia is a critic of the press, chiding media coverage for focusing on the result, not the legal analysis, of a case.

Rehnquist, too, has shown displeasure with the media. In a rare session with the press seven years ago, a reporter suggested that justices candidly inform the public about their illnesses and medical treatment.

Irritated, Rehnquist assailed reporters as "vultures." The meeting broke up. It has not been repeated.

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