Chief Justice Roberts: “We are the most transparent branch of government.”

July 1st, 2011

During the Annual Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals Conference, Chief Justice Roberts made a number of comments on a wide-range of issues, from Justice Kagan’s new frozen yogurt machine to the benefits of hiring of law clerks without experience to the value of legal scholarship. Someone in the crowd asked a question about televising proceedings.

The Chief claimed that cameras are not necessary, and in fact the Supreme Court is the most transparent branch of government.

“We are the most transparent branch of government. Everything we do that has an impact is done in public. We don’t do the deliberations. You see the work in public in the Court. Our opinions are out there. You see the materials we look at in the briefs. What is not public are internal conferences.” (I have not located an official transcript; this is my best attempt to accurately type what the Chief said).

Is this accurate? The Court, without explanation, decides only the cases it wishes. They deliberate and assign authorship in private. Sometimes Justices even add appendixes of information outside the record because the briefs are apparently not sufficient. The Justices hear oral arguments, and without notice, issue an opinion months later. They sometimes offer enigmatic clues during oral arguments through their questions. Between arguments and the day the Court issues an opinion, the outcome of a case is essentially a mystery.

The Chief also commented that introducing cameras into the Legislative branch has actually degraded the quality of those proceedings.

“I’m told, the way society is, things don’t really happen unless you see them on TV. The Supreme Court is different. I’ve talked to people in the Senate and they think televising debates in the Senate has ruined them. Anyone who sees them, there is always one person standing at the podium and no one else there, people tell me it didn’t use to be that way.”

After a comment by Judge Wilkinson, lamenting the fact that great speeches from Daniel Webster and Abraham Lincoln were never recorded, the Chief remarked that “It would be interesting to know what governmental institutions function better now that they’re on television”–the Court or the Legislature.

Cross-Posted at