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Tejinder Singh Contributor

Posted Wed, November 9th, 2011 9:30 am

Justices in the media

Today in the Community we discuss the relationship between the Court and the media, and specifically appearances by Justices and former Justices in the press. The Justices make many public appearances, including lectures and visits to law schools, but interviews are relatively rare. Below, we welcome your thoughts about the virtues and drawbacks of greater communication between the Court and the media.

  • Kali Borkoski – 0 Promoted Comments

    In this thread, discuss how the Justices’ media appearance relates to their judicial role.

  • Kali Borkoski – 0 Promoted Comments

    In this thread, discuss whether there is an benefit to the Court engaging the public simply to improve public understanding.

  • Kali Borkoski – 0 Promoted Comments

    In this thread, discuss how the Court and the media could have a more productive relationship.

    • Tony Mauro – 2 Promoted Comments

      Two areas in which Supreme Court justices could be more forthcoming – for the benefit of the public, as well as the media – are personal health and recusals.
      Justices tend to be stingy about informing the public about serious health problems. In several instances over the years, justices released limited information about hospitalizations or illnesses only after rumors circulated around town – suggesting that they might have said nothing at all if they could have kept their conditions secret. Contrast this with round-the-clock coverage of presidential ailments such as Ronald Reagan’s. I’m not suggesting going to that extreme for justices, but something more informative than usually occurs now would be a public-minded approach. Their health really does matter.
      As for recusals, most justices never explain why they have decided not to participate in a particular case. Sometimes the reason is clear from their financial disclosure forms: they own stock in a company that is a party in the case. Sometimes there is a clear family connection. Justice Stephen Breyer, for example, won’t participate in a case that was handled at an earlier stage by his brother Charles Breyer, a federal district court judge in California.
      But often, the press and public are left to wonder why a justice stepped aside in a case. There seems to be no good reason for secrecy in this area. I’ve heard some justices argue that they don’t explain their reasons because they would not want to pressure their colleagues into recusing in a similar situation. That seems to take collegiality too far. And it highlights the problematic fact that justices stay in or bow out of cases by their own lights, their standards, without review by anyone else.

      • Linda Greenhouse – 1 Promoted Comment

        It’s interesting that the only justices in recent times who have been forthcoming about their health issues have been women — Justices O’Connor and Ginsburg. And the sky didn’t fall when they let the public know what they were going through.

      • Jim Simmons – 1 Promoted Comment

        I respectfully disagree with Mr. Mauro, at least as far as health is concerned. Unless a health issue has a direct bearing on a justice’s ability to perform his or her duties, the issue is the justice’s own business and no one else’s. Rather than compare coverage of justices’ health issues to that of a president, I’d suggest that presidents and justices ought to assert more control over their own medical information. Yes, presidents and justices are public figures, and therefore are legitimate targets for anything the press can discover and disclose. But I don’t think that creates an obligation on the part of these officials to serve up to the public everything from their blood cholesterol level to the status of their dental fillings. President Reagan’s condition in the aftermath of the assassination attempt? Absolutely vital to the nation. Ditto the information that he may have been suffering from some level of Alzheimer’s Disease while in office. But while reports that a given justice may be suffering from some treatable form of cancer may generate interest, unless that illness interferes with the job, the justice should have the option to keep it to him or herself.

        Moreover, a justice should especially not feel obligated to disclose their family members’ health issues. That Justice O’Connor’s husband was suffering from Alzheimer’s was nobody’s business but his and his family’s. She was very generous with her updates on his condition as it progressed, but I hope that was a choice based on her preference, and not on any perceived “obligation” to reveal all.

    • – 0 Promoted Comments

      I think it’s vital at this point. Honestly, most people don’t understand what it is they do in that tower. They hear the complaints of the politician saying they are legislating from the bench and assume their decisions are an attempt to mandate them. In fact, all their media coverage tends to be negative. There were so many accusatory statements about Scalia and his opinion of women’s rights a while back. I wonder how no one could have noted it as a warning. I don’t always agree with him, but he is neither self destructive or stupid. Notably, even with that, women were unable to secure equality this year.

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