C-SPAN Peeks Behind the Cloak of Highest Court in New Book

Posted May 17, 2010 at 3:02pm

The life of a politician is necessarily a public one, where every word and action is liable to be disseminated through the mainstream press and dissected in the blogosphere.

Not so much for the Supreme Court: While important decisions and nomination battles get coverage, its day-to-day operations and the personalities of its members are often cloaked in obscurity akin to the justices’ iconic robes.

A new book, compiled by a team of C-SPAN journalists, attempts to pull back the curtain. C-SPAN founder and CEO Brian Lamb, Vice President Susan Swain and Executive Producer Mark Farkas gained unprecedented access to the high court and its members for a documentary shot earlier this year, and the transcripts of the interviews are reprinted in the new book “The Supreme Court: A C-SPAN Book Featuring the Justices in Their Own Words.”

Justices, of course, tend to avoid the public spotlight, and cameras are banned from public arguments. Farkas said getting access to the court required some lobbying on C-SPAN’s part, and even then they had to be circumspect. The contrast with two previous C-SPAN documentaries on the White House and Congress was striking.

“It was almost night and day,” Farkas said. “Police officers inside the Capitol are used to seeing cameras, aides are used to seeing cameras. With the White House, the same thing. With the Supreme Court you’re making your way through hushed halls and corridors. It’s not an understatement to say they’re not used to seeing cameras in the building, so it took a while to gain their trust, even though C-SPAN is about as nonthreatening as you can come by.”

C-SPAN went into the project intending to shoot a documentary about the Supreme Court building itself. Ultimately, they conducted one-on-one interviews with all nine justices and former Justice Sandra Day O’Connor. David Souter, who had never given an interview in nearly two decades on the court, even agreed to talk (although, unlike his colleagues, his responses are not reprinted in full).

The result is a series of personal portraits of how these men and women approach a case and understand the various traditions governing the court. Some are less forthcoming than others — Antonin Scalia, true to his principle of judicial restraint, is stingy in describing how he makes his decisions — but they all provide a window into how the court works. Recurring questions, such as how heavily the justices weigh oral arguments, prompt varying responses that speak to the their personalities.

“Each one of them are incredibly individualistic and I think that comes through in some of their responses,” Farkas said. “If they’d all said the same thing we’d have a pretty boring documentary.”

While much of the discussion centers on how the court functions — what goes on in the private conference following oral arguments, the role clerks play, how the court decides which cases to hear — personal details also emerge. John Paul Stevens talks about the Cubs jersey hanging on his office wall to commemorate his throwing out a first pitch, Clarence Thomas talks about traveling in an RV when the court is not in session, and O’Connor talks about the familial closeness that binds the justices to one another regardless of ideological differences.

“That was the most exciting part, to learn about these folks as people,” Farkas said.

The book also includes supplemental interviews with journalists, current and past law clerks and former Solicitor General Drew Days III. The latter is particularly relevant as Elena Kagan’s nomination thrusts into the public consciousness both the complexion of the court and the role of the solicitor general. Farkas said he will “absolutely” be paying more attention to Kagan’s confirmation hearings than he did to past nominees.

“For me, I’m not going to go as far as saying [the documentary] has been a life-changing experience, but for me it just opened up my eyes to something maybe I should pay a little more attention to,” Farkas said. “Congressmen and presidents will come and go, but these justices are there for life.”