- The Washington Times - Monday, December 25, 2006


Many Supreme Court justices prize the anonymity that comes with their lifetime appointments and camera-free courtroom. Unrecognized, justices have snapped pictures for tourists in front of the court or been asked to move out of the way of a shot.

On rare occasion, a justice might consent to an interview on the C-SPAN cable network to discuss a recent book or be shown addressing a lawyers’ gathering somewhere.

Lately, however, some members of the court have been popping up in unusual places — including network television news programs — and talking about more than just the law.

For an institution that has kept the press at a comfortable distance for much of its existence, the Supreme Court’s increasingly public face is astonishing, said University of Chicago law professor Dennis Hutchinson, who served as a law clerk for Justices Byron R. White and William O. Douglas.

“More and more, the justices are spending time talking off the bench informally to reporters, on the record, off the record, in public, on tape, on film,” Mr. Hutchinson said.

Justices Antonin Scalia and Stephen G. Breyer recently debated their competing views of the Constitution. Justice Breyer and retired Justice Sandra Day O’Connor have talked publicly and repeatedly about threats to judicial independence. Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. proudly affirmed his membership in the conservative Federalist Society, speaking in a packed ballroom at its recent convention.

Perhaps most noteworthy, though, has been the press-friendly attitude adopted by new Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., in contrast to his predecessor William H. Rehnquist. Chief Justice Roberts recently was featured on ABC News’ “Nightline” discussing his view of the court.

“Roberts is putting a smiley face in the center chair,” said Mr. Hutchinson, who recalled earlier eras in which chief justices rigorously avoided the press and looked askance at their colleagues who consented to the rare interview.

Having spent more of his legal career as an advocate than as a judge, Chief Justice Roberts is at ease on a public stage. He has long-standing professional relationships with many in the court’s veteran reporting corps.

For many years, justices held the view that the court’s mystique and reputation were enhanced by their distance from the public. The justices spoke through their written opinions, laying out not only what they had decided, but why.

Their unbending refusal to allow cameras in the courtroom has been part and parcel of this thought that the Supreme Court is unlike Congress and the presidency in that it does not serve at the pleasure of voters.

At this early stage in his tenure, it is not clear just where the court is headed. With Chief Justice Roberts and Justice Alito — two new conservative faces on the court — high-profile cases involving abortion, race and the environment await decisions.

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