Buy low on Supreme Court transparency

The transformation happened in just one week. 

The nine justices of the U.S. Supreme Court, whose unease with modern technology surfaced during a case about a new television distribution service, sounded like different people seven days later when debating whether a police officer has the right to search your smartphone in the course of a routine traffic stop. 

{mosads}During the former suit, ABC v. Aereo, argued April 22, Justice Sonia Sotomayor muddled the names of different cloud computing options, Justice Stephen Breyer seemed unaware of streaming music services and Justice Antonin Scalia didn’t realize that HBO differs from broadcast TV. 

On April 29, in Riley v. California, Chief Justice John Roberts signaled that he and his colleagues had boned up on their tech knowledge, articulating the court’s position that the Fourth Amendment protects your iPhone from warrantless search, since a “person’s whole life” could be stored on it. Roberts then dryly asked an attorney whether police had the right to access someone’s “banking app” without cause, just in case a large sum of money coinciding with a drug deal had recently been deposited. That’s progress. 

The justices’ course correction in April shows the court is capable of navigating questions related to 21st century technology and should serve as a marker for those of us who believe the nine can and should modernize their institution in the interest of transparency. Putting cameras in the courtroom, announcing the justices’ public appearances and recusals and posting their financial disclosure reports online are all simple improvements that could be instituted in the matter of weeks, if not days, and would herald a new era of openness in the judiciary. In fact, I’m bullish on 2015 being the year that the Supreme Court begins to open up. 

First, a couple positive signs from 2014. There was the widely publicized announcement made by Chief Justice Roberts on New Year’s Eve that the court would finally adopt an electronic filing system. And after Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg made a minor factual error in an October opinion, the court press office – for the first time ever – noted that a mistake had occurred and was being corrected. These announcements demonstrate the justices are cognizant that certain policy changes are beneficial. They should continue on this path in 2015. 

This year will see a high-profile case on health care, for certain, and one on same-sex marriage, possibly, at the high court – plus suits on abortion rights and voting wait in the wings for potential late-spring hearings. Major cases always bring a crowd, but thousands of Americans wanting to see democracy in action are left out of the process since they aren’t physically in Washington at the time of a hearing – or are unable to line up outside the court the night before to guarantee a spot inside. 

That’s why live-streaming Supreme Court oral arguments and decision announcements online should be a priority in 2015 – in fact, Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) and Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.) indicated to The Hill last week that they plan to again propose camera-in-the-courtroom bills this session. 

Also in 2015, a pilot program that allowed for placement of cameras in 14 federal trial courts comes to end. The research arm of the judicial branch charged with analyzing the program will most likely find the cameras to be as obstructive as wall-mounted clocks. It’s time to adopt the technology across the federal courts system. 

Another area in which the court could easily improve its transparency is by announcing the justices’ public appearances. The nine give speeches, teach classes and judge legal competitions, and members of the public relish the opportunity to hear from or meet a justice. But unlike the press offices of the president and members of Congress, the Supreme Court does not release travel information. While the court doesn’t need send a press release every time a justice leaves D.C., there’s no harm in letting the public know when the nation’s top jurists are to give a speech at the local college. 

Like other top public officials in the federal government, the justices are required to release annual financial disclosure reports. Yet the judicial branch is the only one whose top officials do not place their reports online. Last year, as manager of the Coalition for Court Transparency, I was able to obtain the reports, and I posted them online. But there’s no good reason the judiciary doesn’t do this on its own – and it should in 2015. 

The Supreme Court’s tradition and formality are part of what gives the institution its majesty. But when some of this tradition stands in the way of transparency and accountability, it’s time to move forward. And 2015 should be that time. 

Roth is executive director of Fix the Court, a national, nonpartisan organization that advocates for a more accountable Supreme Court.

Tags Chuck Grassley Gerry Connolly

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