Supreme Court FAQ

Why won’t the Supreme Court allow TV cameras at Friday’s hearing on George W. Bush’s appeal of the Florida Supreme Court ruling?

Because it won’t allow cameras at any of its hearings. It allows reporters to take notes but not tape proceedings, and members of the viewing public who try to take notes will have their pencils confiscated. Even though technology exists to make available real-time transcripts of hearings, the court prefers to release them weeks later. (An official court audio is released after each term.) And just what do you think you’re going to do about it, huh? The court doesn’t give any official reason for the ban (they’re Supreme Court justices, they don’t have to), but there are unofficial reasons. For one thing the justices like their anonymity. They can go to the 7-Eleven without people coming up and asking them to overturn Roe v. Wade. For another thing they are concerned that their words will get chopped up into sound bites on the evening news. And yet another is each one is concerned his or her colleagues will turn into camera hogs. Sens. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., and Joseph Biden, D-Del., no strangers to TV cameras themselves, have introduced legislation to encourage the court to televise its hearings. The legislation is not expected to go anywhere, but let’s say it passed both houses. What do you think the Supreme Court is going to do about it? Nothing! Do you think Sandra Day O’Connor and Ruth Bader Ginsburg are going to have Katherine Harris do their makeup so they’ll be ready for their close-ups?

Al Gore said during the campaign that the next president could possibly replace four justices. Which ones?

Can you hear the vultures circling? Although it is not for any of us to say who might retire or take some more permanent action, a number of names keep coming up. At 80, Justice John Paul Stevens is the oldest member of the court and thought to be the most likely to retire. Chief Justice William Rehnquist is 76 and has been on the court almost 29 years. It is rumored that he has been waiting for the end of the Clinton presidency and the beginning of a Republican one in order to step down. Antonin Scalia, 64, is supposed to be disturbed by restrictions on honoraria and is thought to be considering stepping down in order to make more money. Both Sandra Day O’Connor, 70, and Ruth Bader Ginsburg, 67, have been treated for cancer.

What is certiorari?

It comes from the Latin for “to be informed.” To get a case accepted for review by the Supreme Court, a petitioner seeks a “writ of certiorari.” Generally, it takes the agreement of four justices to “grant cert.” This only happens in about 1 percent of the 8,000 cases annually that come to the court.

Once the justices grant certiorari, can they change their minds?

Yes. Let’s say the justices decide that since Bush was certified the winner in Florida, there’s no reason to go ahead and actually hear his challenge to the Florida Supreme Court ruling allowing manual recounts. In that case they could simply “dismiss the writ as improvidently granted.” Or, if they didn’t want to hear this appeal but wanted to indicate they would be willing to hear an appeal of future lower court actions in the case, they could dismiss the case but say they “retain jurisdiction.”

Could Bush decide he doesn’t want to go ahead with this appeal but might want to appeal future rulings?

Yes. He would ask for a voluntary dismissal without prejudice. If the court granted it without prejudice, that would leave the door open for Bush to appeal further. If it was dismissed with prejudice, the door is closed.

Next questions?

Explainer thanks Frederick Shauer of the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, Akhil Reed Amar of Yale Law School, and Sanford Levinson of the University of Texas School of Law.