News media plays an important role in the government. It allows transparency between the government and American public, serves a watchdog role, and provides an opportunity for government officials to draw attention and support to certain issues. However, there is one branch of the federal government that notoriously steers clear of too much news media- the Supreme Court.
In “Governing with the News”, Timothy E. Cook points out several reasons why the Supreme Court “seems unlikely to link media strategies and governing strategies.” Justices have almost no public life due to their lifetime appointment, and they are seen to have less of a need to use the news to gain information for their jobs. In addition, due to the intricate technicalities of Court decisions, the cost of communicating these decisions to the average American without a law degree through the news media is high.
Some may not automatically see the connection between lifetime appointment to a position and a lack of pubic life, but it all has to do with public support. Justices feel no pressure to garner public support because they aren’t held responsible to constituents. They don’t have to worry about being re-elected in order to keep their positions. They are able to avoid politics and focus on the law due to their life appointment, so the importance of publicity is very low for the justices.
Supreme Court justices keep quiet when it comes to the inner workings of the Court. When discussing cases in the Court’s conference room, no one other than justices are allowed in the room. After the decisions of cases have been announced, justices refrain from discussing what happened in the conference room and the reasoning behind the decisions. In this CNN interview with Justice Antonin Scalia, the reporters points out that Justice Scalia will not talk specifically about any of the Court’s recent cases or the deliberations that took place to reach the decision for the Affordable Care Act case. When Adam Liptak interviewed Justice Clarence Thomas for the New York Times, he mentions how Justice Thomas “seldom appears in Washington.” He also points out that several times during the interview Justice Thomas would change the subject or refrain from elaborating on a brief point.
Justices don’t rely on news media as other government officials do to gain information. For elected officials, it is important for them to pay attention to news in order to gauge importance and interest in issues pertinent to their office. Justices, however, “attempt to limit themselves…to the facts of the case generated at lower levels” (from “Governing with the News”). Justices have to take the law, precedents, and the Constitution into account, not popular news coverage or public opinion of an issue. This leads a lesser need to consume news for the purposes of fulfilling their roles as justices, which is to interpret law, not news.
A recent and very publicized example of the high cost of communicating decisions through the media is the misreporting on the Affordable Care Act. Several news outlets, including CNN and Fox News, mistakenly reported that the Court ruled the individual mandate section of the act unconstitutional. Quotes from reporters trying to justify the mistake include calling decision a “very confusing large opinion” that is “thick” and “legally dense.” In the news world, there is a priority on being the first to report something as monumental as important Supreme Court decisions, so in cases like this, it is easy for news outlets to make mistakes when they rush to understand complex decisions. However, another interesting point to take into account when reporting on the Supreme Court was made by Erik Wemple in response to CNN misreporting the Affordable Care Act decision. He said “Someone needs to tell CNN: There is no such thing as fashioning a scoop over something that’s released to the public.” Due to the nature of the Court’s interaction with the media, no one news outlet could have an exclusive scoop because information is released to the public and all news outlets receive the information at the same time.
But could all of this be changing? As you can see from some of the articles I cited, justices don’t completely shy away from interviews. In addition, justices are more frequently making appearances in the public and in the media. Next week I will be exploring the recent increase phenomenon of justices’ willingness to be interviewed and make appearances as well as its impact on the Court.