#SCOTUS Communications Problem Today Highlights Transparency Issues

There has been much talk (and agitation) about the Supreme Court’s lack of transparency. There is no live video or audio feed of its arguments. News organizations used to have to beg to get the same day release of audio in certain high profile cases, and even that now is ordinarily not available. There is no electronic filing system, and one cannot even get copies of briefs or even some Court orders from the Court itself. Instead, everyone has to rely on outside groups such as the ABA or SCOTUSBlog or the parties themselves.

After the Court’s long conference last week, the Court did not issue orders the day after the conference as many expected, and the Court made no public announcement as to when orders were going to come down (though they did, as rumored, at 9:30 am last Thursday).  Why the great secrecy? Should it be a state secret when the Court is issuing orders, or opinions?  Why not, as the California Supreme Court does, give notice of forthcoming filings as they are ready to come down?

For a public government body, this lack of transparency and ease of access to documents, arguments, and action are inexcusable.

But the Court gave itself a black eye this morning in its release of orders, in a way which says more about the Court’s lack of communications competence than about any policy of transparency. This morning the Court released hard copies of its order list to the press with 33 pages missing. At first reporters said there was no action in the same sex marriage cases, but that was later corrected. Meanwhile, on the much-touted (but actually quite modest in terms of substance) Supreme Court website redesign, it took 75 minutes for an online copy of the order list to appear.

Everyone makes mistakes, and the order list issue is not a big deal. But it is an occasion to highlight that if the Court wanted to make its work more accessible to the public and to those who follow the Court closely, there is much room for improvement.

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