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Icons of Text: SCOTUS and the written word in a video age.

by Ethan Tussey

by Chad Pollock for IN MEDIA RES

Supreme Court justices typically enter the American cultural milieu during televised confirmation hearings, yet after a justice is sworn in, media interactions are primarily through written opinions, or through second-hand accounts of oral arguments. At his confirmation hearing, Chief Justice Roberts compared judges to umpires. "Nobody ever went to a baseball game to watch the umpire." Legal pundits have debated the validity of the simile but have overlooked one significant difference: umpires issue immediate verbal rulings whereas Supreme Court Justices rule through written text.

On June 28, 2012, SCOTUS issued a ruling on the constitutionality of President Obama's signature health care law, the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PL 111-148, 'Obamacare'). Supporters and opponents of the law gathered in front of the Supreme Court to wait for the decision. When the opinion was issued, all the major news outlets interrupted regular broadcasting to make the announcement. This was one of the most momentous decisions that the court has issued, perhaps the defining decision of the Robert's court. Yet, there was no speech, no official to address the nation. Justice Roberts did not make an appearance on the steps of the court nor did any of the other justices. The star that day was a 200 page text.
The scene at the court house steps resembled an absurdist play, hundreds of people waiting for a complex legal document. The CBS Special Report was typical. It is a videographic type-scene we are familiar with: "We interrupt this broadcast..." Yet, the scene is spoiled by Jan Crawford's bumbling with the text, trying to issue a climactic sound bite, and ultimately retreating.
How does this preference for text shape the cultural image of the court and her justices? Would that image change if the Supreme Court allowed video in the court room? Is the abstraction of the Justices through text a necessity of the rule of law?

Supreme Court Footage Montage

Video montage for curated piece at In Media Res. Three clips: John Roberts opening remarks at his confirmation hearing; C-span footage in front of the Supreme Court on the day of the 'Obamacare' decision; and CBS Special report at the time the opinion was released.

from CBS Special Report (2012)
Creator: CBS
Distributor: CBS
Posted by Ethan Tussey