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.
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.
If you had tuned in today, you would have been able to view Property Reserve Inc. v. Superior Court. It may not have been scintillating television, but the issue involved the state’s authority to take private property.
Among the cases on tap Wednesday morning is Friends of the College of San Mateo Gardens v. San Mateo County Community College District. Sounds like an intramural tussle, right? But the case is involves a hot topic: the California Environmental Quality Act, which has divided the left and the right since its adoption.
Scheduled for Thursday morning is Brown, Jr., (Edmund G.), as Governor, etc. et al., v. Superior Court of Sacramento County (California District Attorneys Association et al.). This dispute is about “The Parole, Early Release and Juvenile Trial Reform Initiative,” which may or may not be decided by voters on the Nov. 8 ballot.
Here is background on the case provided by the website Ballotpedia: “After the initial version of this initiative was amended by petitioners, the California District Attorneys Association filed a lawsuit arguing that the amendments substantially changed the initiative and that proponents should have to start over, filing a new initiative petition application. The judge ruled in favor of the district attorneys, forcing proponents to refile the initiative in order to continue the campaign, which would likely delay the initiative until an election in 2018.”
In a nutshell, the initiative would increase parole opportunities for non-violent offenders and shift the responsibility from district attorneys to judges on deciding if juveniles should be charged as adults.
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