In case you missed it, there’s been quite a kerfuffle at the Supreme Court. The Court recently released its audio recording and transcript of Octane Fitness, LLC v. Icon Health & Fitness. Usually transcripts and audio recordings aren’t much to write home about, but in this case the Court admits to having doctored them.
What’s particular about the case is that a protestor, Mr. Noah Newkirk, rose to give a “harangue” in violation of federal law. Specifically, he protested the Court’s decision in Citizens United v. FEC and mumbled on about a pending opinion to be released in McCutcheon v. FEC. This minute interruption became viral on the Internet thanks to the video captured by his co-conspirators:
I can’t say that I’m a big fan of Mr. Newkirk’s arguments or the fact that he disrupted the highest judicial proceedings of our country to go on about his personal views on election law and the First Amendment. I was, however, surprised by the Supreme Court’s decision to delete Mr. Newkirk’s stunt from the recording and transcript. This hasn’t gone unnoticed by Supreme Court watchers nationwide.
Two fundamental principles come into play when examining the Court’s decision to alter its transcripts and recordings. First, the legitimacy of judicial review is based in part on public confidence in the institution. Government actions that undermine public trust in an impartial judiciary work to undo the fabric of justice. Second, the Constitution protects the right of a public trial as well as the ability to communicate about what happened in judicial proceedings. These two interests insure a degree of accountability by the courts. Where government actors alter court documents and recordings both of these principles are damaged.
One proposed method to provide better transparency in our federal courts is simple: allow sensible third-party video or audio recordings. This would provide for greater oversight of the courts by decentralizing the control of its recording and transcription services. Welcoming this sort of transparency at our nation’s high court would help reclaim the public trust and ensure future accountability.