Editorials

Live from the California Supreme Court, how real laws get made

Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye has ordered webcasting Supreme Court oral arguments, with English and Spanish captions, to help open up the judicial branch to the public.
Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye has ordered webcasting Supreme Court oral arguments, with English and Spanish captions, to help open up the judicial branch to the public. mcrisostomo@sacbee.com

A California Supreme Court oral argument isn’t at all like an episode of “Law and Order,” and it’s definitely not the Trial of the Century.

But the arguments are basic to understanding how the court works. Technology willing, people wanting to get a glimpse at how the seven justices of this state’s highest court go about their business will be able to visit the California Supreme Court site, and click on a link to view a live webcast starting Tuesday.

Trial courts in California have allowed television cameras for some cases since 1984. Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye has sought to expand that by webcasting Supreme Court oral arguments, with English and Spanish captions, to help open up the judicial branch to the public. The other six justices readily agreed, she told The Sacramento Bee’s editorial board in a recent visit.

Tune in today to view Property Reserve Inc. v. Superior Court. It may not be scintillating television, but the issue involves the state’s authority to take private property.

Watch the justices hear attorneys’ arguments over whether a mother can invoke the Indian Child Welfare Act to reclaim parental rights, after child protective services workers concluded she was unfit because her baby was born with marijuana in his system. Or consider a death-penalty appeal by William Joseph Richards, whose lawyers are challenging the validity of bite-mark evidence.

Few people will take the time to visit the Supreme Court chambers in San Francisco, Los Angeles or Sacramento where monthly oral arguments take place. It is not like visiting Universal City or Disneyland. Nor will the Supreme Court show rival the Kardashians or even C-SPAN for market share. But its work is a basic part of the democratic system.

There will be value for students of democracy to see an intelligent and collegial group of justices at work. There is value, too, in showing the outside world that the court is as diverse as California – three men, four women, Asian Americans, an African American, a Latino, whites and a chief justice who is of Filipino ancestry.

Courts in other states should take a cue from the California Supreme Court, as should the U.S. Supreme Court. For now, however, the U.S. Supreme Court seems stuck in the past, believing televised proceedings would diminish the importance of their work. It wouldn’t. But it could help restore some confidence in our government.

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