Traditionally the Supreme Court has attempted to limit its interaction with media. In my previous post, I discussed justices’ hesitance for discussing the inner happenings of the Court and how decisions are reached. However, the Court has recently become more willing to communicate with the media, and justices have been more willing to step into the media spotlight and develop a public life.
In the book “Justices and Journalists: The U.S. Supreme Court and Media”, Richard Davis discusses the relationship between the mainstream media and the Court. Through a study of media coverage of the Court over a forty-five year period, David finds that news coverage of the Court has substantially increased in the late 20th century and early 21st century. Davis points out that interaction between the media and justices isn’t something new. Justices have used media to shape public opinion and media coverage since the Court has been in existence. Willingness to talk to the press varies with each justice, and the extent of the information given to the press during interviews and appearance also varies among justices. However, due to the recent increase in media outlets, justices now have more tools and more opportunities to communicate with the public.
Justices have become more vocal about voicing their opinions. Traditionally they have been removed from discussing their personal viewpoints, but modern justices have broken that tradition. Ruth Bader Ginsburg has discussed the rising prominence of women on the Court and the importance of continuing the trend and Antonin Scalia is notorious for discussing his legal philosophy. He frequently comments on his devotion to textualism during interviews and even wrote a book on the topic.
In addition, justices increasingly participate in interviews and documentaries. C-SPAN produced a number of documentaries and interviews that offers “viewers a rare window in the Supreme Court and those that serve there.” Various news outlets, including CNN, the New York Times, and ABC News have conducted interviews with justices, and overall there is less hesitancy among members of the Court to agree to being interviewed.
Justices have also become very willing to make public appearances. They speak at universities, attend fundraisers, and make appearances at conventions. During these appearances, the justices aren’t hesitant to voice their opinions. As Davis points out, “they may appear to have given up attempting to disseminate the image that they are uninterested in and unaware of political events and issues in generally.”
All of these interactions lead to an interesting question- does this interaction with the media have a negative effect on the legitimacy of the Supreme Court? Does the fact that justices are becoming more public mean they are straying too far from the judicial realm and into the political realm? The Supreme Court doesn’t have the ability to enforce any of its decisions, so, as Davis puts it, “the currency for the Court is public legitimacy.” The Court could lose its clout and power if it begins to appear too political. In his book “The Supreme Court”, Jeffrey Rosen argues that the justices know that “familiarity breeds contempt and inaccessibility promotes authority,” which would suggest that it is better for justices to stay out of the media spotlight. Rosen points out that “the Court’s resistance to publicity may or may not increase the public’s understanding of how it goes about its business, but it hasn’t hurt the Court’s legitimacy.” His statement suggests that if the Court is more public, it could hurt its legitimacy, which in turn would hurt its ability to fulfill its purpose.
I think that media coverage’s effect on the Court’s legitimacy isn’t as strong as some suggest, and it is okay for justices to increase their presence in the media. Of the three branches of the government, the Court is probably the branch that the least number of people know about. Legal issues are something that the public should be informed about, and increased media coverage could lead to a more informed public. However, there is a fine line between informing the public and allowing media participation and coverage to turn the Court into a political institution. Justices need to be cautious about keeping the information in their interviews informational and avoiding personal or subjective information. Media coverage can be a beneficial tool for Court, but only in moderation.