Gutterman: The Court itself becomes the story

Members of the media wait in front of Members of the media wait in front of the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington. (June 28, 2012) Photo Credit: Getty Images

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For the past month, the media frenzy surrounding the United States Supreme Court has reached a fever pitch. So many citizens and politicians have been sitting on pins and needles awaiting the court's decision on the Affordable Care Act that there's been an unusual amount of drama at the end of this year's term.

The court doesn't announce in advance which cases will be decided on any given day. With the exception of the justices, their clerks and a handful of officials in the court's publications office, the news breaks only once the justices begin reading. So for the past few weeks, it has come down to a guessing game on the morning when decisions are scheduled to be announced.

On a Monday morning several weeks ago, a cable television anchor announced live on the air, with apparent certainty, that the court would announce the health care decision that day. That morning the courtroom was full of spectators, many lining up early to get one of the couple hundred seats for the public. The room buzzed with excited whispers until a Supreme Court marshal cautioned the audience to keep quiet.

There was also a larger than normal contingent in the court's press gallery that day. Outside, at the foot of the court's steps, a bank of television cameras and microphones was set up in anticipation.

But only one opinion came down that day -- and it was so uninteresting there was a subtle collective sigh in the press gallery. The media story became not that day's decision, but that the health care ruling had not come down -- which led to a few more weeks of speculation over what this meant.

Was it a close call? Were the justices still divided? Would each justice write an individual opinion? Would the court hold over the decision until the next term?

So for more than a month, the story about the health care case became the story of how the court was not announcing the decision. This complicated legal issue -- the subject of six hours of oral arguments -- boiled down to a simplified tale about delay and the politics of the decision.

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The case's widespread public interest reopened the discussion on cameras in courtroom. The Supreme Court justices have steadfastly fought against broadcasting their proceedings. Some say the public wouldn't understand the complexities of the cases, that lawyers would grandstand to the cameras during arguments or the public would get a skewed understanding of proceedings because the media focuses on sound bites.

But even without cameras in the Supreme Court, the court actually operates with a ton of openness. All the briefs are open to public scrutiny; the arguments, complete with the justices' questions, are done in open court in front of an audience; the opinions are read in open court and published for all to read.

The Internet has also opened much of this to the public as well. The court's opinions are made available to the public within minutes of their reading via the website. The Supreme Court's website also posts transcripts of the oral arguments, usually within hours of the arguments. Technology has facilitated this public access to the court and, in turn, the public's understanding of the law.

Credible Internet sites -- such as Scotusblog.com, which transmits a live blog of the announced readings and then posts the opinions online -- have made the court's workings accessible to wider audiences, too. Months ago, only a few thousand court watchers followed the happenings on Scotusblog. As the court released its decision today, the site reported more than 800,000 live readers.

So while the television reporters do their live stand-ups at the foot of the Supreme Court building, and the newspapers and online journalists rush to be the first to report the opinions, the public has a real chance to get a clearer picture of what the court has done and how it once again has defined the law of the land.

Roy S. Gutterman is an associate professor and director of the Tully Center for Free Speech at the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse Universtiy.

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