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

Curator's Note

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?


Chad, Intriguing questions you have there that show just how reliant hype-media is on visuals and aurality/orality. You're also spot on regarding the scene playing out like a theater of the absurd. But this performance ultimately breaks down when the continuation of the dialectic needs to shift into a kind of more erudite way of communication through text that's more scholarly. And so I think what your piece also reveals is a kind of cultural conspiracy that privileges academic literacy and genre knowledge of certain types fixed written texts as a benchmark for entering the conversation--i.e. if you want to have a voice in it, you have to go through various bureaucracies and technicalities; you can't just hype it through fast-paced, capitalist media systems that rely on instant gratification of meaning-making.

Most judges, including SCOTUS justices, consciously refrain from any comment outside the confines of the written text in the belief that debate undermines the validity of the system. The praxis is memorialized in the Canons of Judicial Conduct in several places, but most characteristically in Canon 3(A)(6): "A judge should not make public comment on the merits of a matter pending or impending in any court. A judge should require similar restraint by court personnel subject to the judge’s direction and control. The prohibition on public comment on the merits does not extend to public statements made in the course of the judge’s official duties, to explanations of court procedures, or to scholarly presentations made for purposes of legal education."

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