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Wednesday, December 27, 2006 

Ready for Their Close-ups

This AP article picks up on a trend that many people have been noticing: the Supreme Court Justices have been taking a more active, public role lately...
Lately, however, some members of the court have been popping up in unusual places - including network television news programs - and talking about more than just the law.

For an institution that has kept the media at a comfortable distance for much of its existence, the Supreme Court's increasingly public face is astonishing, said University of Chicago law professor Dennis Hutchinson, who served as a law clerk for Justices Byron White and William Douglas.

"More and more, the justices are spending time talking off the bench informally to reporters, on the record, off the record, in public, on tape, on film," Hutchinson said.
The article cites some examples...
Justices Antonin Scalia and Stephen Breyer recently debated their competing views of the Constitution. Breyer and retired Justice Sandra Day O'Connor have talked publicly and repeatedly about threats to judicial independence. Justice Samuel Alito proudly affirmed his membership in the conservative Federalist Society, speaking in a packed ballroom at its recent convention.

Perhaps most noteworthy, though, has been the media-friendly attitude adoped by new Chief Justice John Roberts, in contrast to his predecessor William Rehnquist. Roberts recently was featured on ABC News' Nightline discussing both his view of the court and his son Jack's Spiderman imitation at Roberts' introduction by President Bush.

"Roberts is putting a smiley face in the center chair," said Hutchinson, who recalled earlier eras in which chief justices rigorously avoided the press and looked askance at their colleagues who consented to the rare interview.
A few years back, Justice Scalia said something at one of his public events. It was something along the lines of "my kids tell me to do this... that it's harder to be demonized if you talk to the public." I'm sure I butchered what he said, but that's the main point. I think that Roberts especially sees how important this is. The Court is a weird, mystical body to most people. They hand down decisions that affect everyone in the country (to some extent), yet few people can even name more than two Justices.

I think that 5-4 decisions, especially like the two recent Ten Commandments cases that came down differently, make the general public look at the Court with a critical eye. Maybe this new public Court is an effort to educate the citizenry about what the Court does and why. Or maybe they just like giving speeches and interviews now.

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