Americans Still Have To Beg The Supreme Court For Audio Of Hearings

The court won't release expedited audio of two historic cases it will hear soon.
JIM WATSON via Getty Images

Since Bush v. Gore decided the 2000 election, the U.S. Supreme Court has made available, on an inconsistent basis, expedited audio of some of its most historic cases.

Now that the court is poised to hear cases that could reshape the nation, the American public is once again begging for the quick release of audio from hearings. Without them, the only way for people to get a detailed account of what goes on behind closed doors is to read the transcripts -- which isn't nearly as exciting or nuanced as experiencing the real thing.

A coalition of press groups and pro-transparency organizations on Friday addressed a letter to Chief Justice John Roberts requesting the release of same-day audio in two major cases: Whole Woman's Health v. Hellerstedt, an abortion case scheduled to be heard next week, and United States v. Texas, a case testing the legality of President Barack Obama's executive actions on immigration.

"The issues presented in these cases -- abortion and immigration -- are some of the most hotly contested in our nation’s civil discourse," the letter reads. "Millions of people will be impacted by how these cases are decided, and we believe the public should hear the justices and attorneys grapple with the subjects at the soonest available moment."

Signatories to the letter include the Society of Professional Journalists, the American Society of Magazine Editors, the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, American Society of News Editors and nonprofits advocating for government openness.

"Supreme Court oral argument is one of our government's most impressive public exercises, and it's a shame that only about 250 members of the public are able to experience it live in the courtroom as it unfolds," said Gabe Roth, executive director of Fix the Court, an organization that lobbies for more transparency and accountability at the high court.

Notice that these organizations aren't asking for video of the proceedings, or even live audio -- standard practices for White House briefings and congressional hearings, as well as for a growing number of federal courts across the country.

"If live audio is not on the table this term, the justices should at least maintain their better-than-nothing practice of releasing audio files of their most high-profile cases on the same day in which they are presented in court," Roth said.

If the Supreme Court turns down the groups' request, it will follow its normal procedure of posting weekly oral argument audio on Fridays -- which is too late for it to be of use to news organizations or anyone else interested in hearing history being made.

The court has agreed to release this audio after oral arguments for certain high-profile disputes -- including last year's decision on same-sex marriage, the first challenge to the Affordable Care Act in 2011 and District of Columbia v. Heller, which in 2008 ruled citizens have a right to own a firearm for self-defense within the home. But other same-day audio requests for landmark cases have been rejected, including for Shelby County v. Holder, which gutted the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and for King v. Burwell, the second major attack on Obamacare.

Maybe, just maybe, the Supreme Court will one day get with the times and let the public see and hear what goes on in its great marble courtroom like other branches of government do: live.

UPDATE, 3/1/16: The Supreme Court declined the organizations' request for expedited audio, one day prior to the hearing in the abortion case. A court spokeswoman said it would follow "its usual practices" of posting audio of oral arguments on Friday. The court also said it won't make available same-day audio in the immigration case, expected to be heard in April.

"Given the makeup of the court and the likelihood of 4-4 ties in each case, our hope is that the next time these and other high-profile issues reach the court it will make the proceedings more accessible to the public," Roth told The Huffington Post. "Audio recordings of the justices grappling with questions of national importance should not be treated like they're part of a Friday afternoon news dump."

Go To Homepage

Before You Go

Popular in the Community