Staff Editorial

U.S. Supreme Court should heed calls for greater transparency

The U.S. Supreme Court building stands in Washington on July 5, 2018. (Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg)
The U.S. Supreme Court building stands in Washington on July 5, 2018. (Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg)

Given the benefits of open government, it isn’t too much to ask the U.S. Supreme Court to take another baby step into the 21st century.

Some courts livestream audio of oral arguments, but not the nation’s highest court. Audio of Supreme Court arguments, except in a handful of high-profile cases, is released at the end of the week, two to four days after the arguments took place. Other audio recordings, like bench announcements, are withheld until the next term begins, which can be months later.

This isn’t due to a lack of technology; audio livestreams are available to lawyers within the building. Beginning with the Bush v. Gore case in 2000, the court carved out a scant few instances where same-day audio recordings are released — most recently, in the case involving President Donald Trump’s travel ban, audio was released less than an hour after the hearing.

Such decisions also aren’t due to a lack of calls for greater access and transparency. The Supreme Court has resisted Congressional and public prodding for more timely insights. No video is allowed at all. Paper transcripts, sometimes with errors and always without a full picture of legal exchanges, are the court’s only routine nod to same-day transparency for millions of Americans unable to travel and wait in line for the privilege of watching proceedings in real time.

At the appellate level, the nation’s high court is the only audio holdout. That is, all 13 federal courts of appeals release audio within a day of a hearing. At least three — the D.C., Fourth and Ninth circuits — also have livestreamed audio.

So, with cautious optimism, we are glad to see U.S. Sens. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, and Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., urge Chief Justice John Roberts to make same-day audio the court’s rule instead of the exception.

As ousted justices from the Iowa Supreme Court would no doubt attest, concerns about transparency pale in comparison to the benefit of open hearings, accessible to and understood by as many people as possible. Justice carried out beyond the public’s immediate view, breeds skepticism and distrust.

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There is an unfortunate and growing trend in our country of public officials who prefer to do their jobs without public scrutiny, without the debate and criticism that comes with open government. This trend only feeds mistrust in American institutions. Our courts, especially our highest court, must remain above that fray.

Live video of Supreme Court proceedings should be the standard, but distribution of same-day audio would be a welcome step in the right direction.

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