Federal Courts and Nominations

What John Roberts could learn from Indiana Supreme Court

An ardent fan of women’s basketball, I traveled to Indianapolis this past weekend in order to attend the first game of the WNBA’s Eastern Conference Finals. While there, I made the most of my visit by taking in some of the local highlights, including a tour of the Indiana Capitol Building, one of the only statehouses in the country that is home to all three branches of the state’s government.

The volunteer tour guide was a former school teacher, and it showed in his detailed and enthusiastic recounting of the history of this beautiful building and its occupants, including the Indiana Supreme Court.

Lawyer that I am, it was a real treat to be able to enter the courtroom and stand at the podium, facing the original 19th Century bench still in use by the court today. Curious about the court’s procedures, I asked our guide whether the court broadcasts its oral arguments. Yes, he said, the arguments are all webcast live; the “of course” tone of his reply suggested that doing otherwise in this day and age could not possibly be an option.

No wonder the guide seemed surprised when I told him how difficult it is for Americans to see the U.S. Supreme Court in action. Unlike the Indiana Supreme Court, our nation’s highest court does not allow cameras in its courtroom — it does not permit video broadcasts of its proceedings, live or otherwise. The U.S. Supreme Court does not even permit live audio broadcasts of its oral arguments, even though audio of oral arguments is already broadcast live into a separate room in the courthouse for an elite group — lawyers who belong to the Supreme Court Bar.

If Americans want to see the workings of the Supreme Court for themselves, they have to travel to Washington, D.C. and wait in line at the courthouse, hoping they have arrived early enough to secure one of the limited number of seats in the courtroom that are made available to the public. For cases in which there is broad public interest, arriving early enough can require getting in line very early in the morning, or in the middle of the night, or sometimes even days in advance. It’s no surprise then that most Americans are unable to see critical cases argued before the Supreme Court, unable to listen to the back-and-forth between the Justices and counsel, unable to witness this part of a government process that affects the rights and interests of every person in our country. For most Americans, the workings of the U.S. Supreme Court remain cloaked in an opaque shroud.

John Roberts, the Chief Justice of the United States, grew up in Indiana. He could learn a very good lesson from the practices of his home state’s Supreme Court, which is that government functions best when those it serves can see and understand what it is doing. Clearly, the Indiana Supreme Court appreciates the value of openness in government. If Hoosiers can broadcast their oral arguments live, why can’t the U.S. Supreme Court?

Schaeffer is vice president of the Constitutional Accountability Center, a think tank and law firm in Washington, D.C.

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