- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 30, 2000

The public's unique opportunity to monitor the Supreme Court proceeding that Justice Clarence Thomas calls "Family Feud" is likely to help legitimize George W. Bush's status as president-elect.

Even without the prospect of a speedy ruling as soon as Monday, the nation and the world could take away markedly changed views about Mr. Bush's victory claim after hearing justices pepper attorneys with questions.

Any intimation of victory for Mr. Bush at the Supreme Court could inhibit lower courts leery of appearing to overrule the justices, convey the impression that the high court recognizes Mr. Bush's election and reinforce Mr. Bush's contention that Vice President Al Gore seeks to wrest away the result of Florida's certified vote.

With action delayed until Saturday in the key Florida lawsuit by Mr. Gore, subject to appeal, and postponement of the Seminole County trial on absentee ballots until Wednesday, the audiotaped broadcast of tomorrow's Supreme Court hearing may cement opposition to Mr. Gore's legal maneuvers to overturn the election.

Despite filing many lawsuits in the case, Mr. Gore questions the Supreme Court's authority even to hear the Bush appeal, which the court will do at 10 a.m. tomorrow.

It will consider Mr. Bush's claims that a Florida Supreme Court ruling usurped federal election law and the U.S. Constitution, winnowing Mr. Bush's Florida lead from 930 votes to 537 votes.

Court officials braced for a full house inside the historic building, as well as the promise of demonstrations outside.

Never before have people outside the ornate 400-seat courtroom had same-day access to so much information on a case literally every written and spoken word the justices will hear or read from all sides, excluding the justices' secret conference, which follows, at which they vote on the outcome.

The chief justice's priority that the court speak with one voice on such transcendent issues could moderate a ruling enough to make it palatable for all nine justices to join.

"Oral argument" at the Supreme Court doesn't involve debate between competing attorneys so much as watching them take turns getting the third-degree from eight justices, with Justice Thomas joining only rarely. The justices always interrupt the attorneys, sometimes before they finish the first sentence, and sometimes are chastised by the chief justice for interrupting each other.

Justice Thomas publicly has derided the process as interfering with an attorney's best chance at persuasion, likening it to the ABC-TV game show, "Family Feud," which generated a huge following from 1976 until 1985.

All briefs and motions in the case are posted at the Web site (www.supremecourtus.gov) also a first and the full hearing transcript is to be made available on that Web site tomorrow afternoon, as will the decision. Briefs had never before been posted by the court and transcripts normally are delayed 15 days.

On Monday, the justices voted to reject any electronic coverage, confining news coverage to writers and artists. On Tuesday, the court found a loophole in its own ruling and decided "in light of the public interest in the Bush case" in the words of Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist to release an audio tape when the session ends.

Although that vote is confidential, Justice David H. Souter has testified to Congress that TV cameras will enter the courtroom "over my dead body." Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said last week in an interview with Lawyers Weekly in Canada that she wouldn't object to gavel-to-gavel TV coverage, but her colleagues did.

"It's very easy to distort a legal proceeding if you don't do it gavel-to-gavel, so it would have to be the full argument," she said, telling the interviewer that the back-and-forth may be misunderstood, according to a report of the interview by American Lawyer. "They cannot be successfully edited by someone outside the judicial house."

No restrictions were placed on use of the tape by the court, including sound-bite excerpts.

"My members are thrilled, just delighted, but if you're going to make it available immediately, why not do it live?" said Barbara Cochran, president of the Radio-Television News Directors Association. She went back to the chief justice on the issue a second time Monday night after he rejected "camera or audio coverage" in a letter to C-SPAN's Brian Lamb.

While many broadcasters kept plans secret, C-SPAN will use pictures of justices and lawyers to illustrate the audio as soon as it becomes available, and repeat the program at 8 p.m. Mrs. Cochran predicted other networks will supplement the audio with courtroom artists and seek to identify speakers.

"The difficulty is the justices don't identify themselves, so even radio is not without its pitfalls. Optimally a broadcaster would give an eyewitness account, identifying speakers in a low voice as events progressed," she said.

She expects networks to offer tape and commentary along with regular programming, allowing affiliates to choose whether or not to to broadcast the hearing when it ends about 11:30 a.m.

The presidential election case will be the first ever broadcast on the same day it is heard, although historic tapes have been sold by the National Archives a year or more after cases are decided.

Court information officer Kathy Arberg said she stopped accepting requests for press seats and expects to equal the all-time record of 118 reporters and courtroom artists. The 19 press seats in the courtroom proper are assigned to reporters who regularly cover the court, while 100 folding chairs can be set up in an alcove with a restricted view.

The courtroom's public area seats about 400 persons admitted from lines outside on a first-come, first-serve basis.

There also are 75 seats inside the brass rail for members of the Supreme Court Bar. Plans were made to shift any overflow to the lawyers lounge, which has 50 seats and a speaker system to monitor courtroom arguments.

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