Chief Justice Roberts: “We are the most transparent branch of government.”

During the Annual Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals Conference, Chief Justice Roberts made a number of comments on a wide-range of issues, from Justice Kagan’s new frozen yogurt machine to the benefits of hiring of law clerks without experience to the value of legal scholarship.

Someone in the crowd asked a question about televising proceedings. The Chief claimed that cameras are not necessary, and asserted the Supreme Court is the most transparent branch of government.

“We are the most transparent branch of government. Everything we do that has an impact is done in public. We don’t do the deliberations. You see the work in public in the Court. Our opinions are out there. You see the materials we look at in the briefs. What is not public are internal conferences.” (I have not located an official transcript; this is my best attempt to accurately type what the Chief said).

Is this accurate? The Court, without explanation, decides only the cases it wishes. They deliberate and assign authorship in private. Sometimes Justices even add appendixes of information outside the record because the briefs are apparently not sufficient. The Justices hear oral arguments, and without notice, issue an opinion months later. They sometimes offer enigmatic clues during oral arguments through their questions. Between arguments and the day the Court issues an opinion, the outcome of a case is essentially a mystery.

The Chief also commented that introducing cameras into the Legislative branch has actually degraded the quality of those proceedings.

“I’m told, the way society is, things don’t really happen unless you see them on TV. The Supreme Court is different. I’ve talked to people in the Senate and they think televising debates in the Senate has ruined them. Anyone who sees them, there is always one person standing at the podium and no one else there, people tell me it didn’t use to be that way.”

After a comment by Judge Wilkinson, lamenting the fact that great speeches from Daniel Webster and Abraham Lincoln were never recorded, the Chief remarked that “It would be interesting to know what governmental institutions function better now that they’re on television”–the Court or the Legislature.

Cross-Posted at

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8 Responses

  1. Gerard Magliocca says:

    The Court’s opinions were better before word processing. I don’t think that means that giving the Justices computers was a mistake.

  2. Shag from Brookline says:

    To follow up on Gerard, word processing made the Court’s opinions longer, including streams and streams and streams of case citations. [Does even Josh check them out?] Perhaps taking the quill away from the Justices was a mistake. Super-sizing of opinions may result in constitutional obesity. And taking less and less and less cases each year may add to that obesity, with the Justices’ robes serving as “sweats.”

  3. Josh Blackman says:

    I tend to think a lot of 19th century opinions were as confusing as heck. They tend to ramble on and on, with plenty of citaitons. As much as I love Justice Harlan, his opinions took forever to get to the point, and had plenty of streams of consciousness. Word processing may have helped to make the opinions more clearly organized.

  4. Joe says:

    “The Court’s opinions were better before word processing.”

    Reading some of them, I’m not sure about that.

    “We don’t do the deliberations.”

    What is the Conference, then? Really, we are adults here, Mr. Roberts.

    As to not being recorded, we do have a short clip of Lincoln saying his wife is a little chubby. It for some reason was shown in a Geico commercial.

  5. Shag from Brookline says:

    Senate debates are a tad different from oral argument before the Court, although the Justices might get involved in intra-Justice-debate at times at the time expense of arguing counsel. Cameras could result in more intra-Justice-debate but the reaction of the viewing public just might magnify the ideology of a Justice; in which case, perhaps the intra-Justice-debate might diminish. And you can be sure that with cameras, it would be doubtful that anyone involved in oral argument would leave the room.

    As to seeing the work of the Justices in public via opinions, that’s like seeing the finished sausage and not how it is made; sometimes a 5-4 sausage may not be palatable.

  6. TS says:

    “[T]he most transparent branch of government”? Except, of course, that FOIA doesn’t apply to it…

  7. A.J. Sutter says:

    Supreme Court is to transparency as Roberts Court is to “umpiring”.

  8. PrometheeFeu says:

    I don’t think the Supreme Court is very transparent, but I think it’s clear they are more transparent than the other branches. At least they justify their most important decisions instead of doing nothing but political posturing.