Transparency Questions for Sotomayor

Senator Patrick Leahy, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, promised in his Sonia Sotomayor hearing opening statement that the committee was embarking on “the most transparent confirmation hearing ever held,” with most relevant vetting documents posted online, and with her testimony streamed live via webcast on the committee’s website.

Daniel Schuman at the Sunlight Foundation (which, full disclosure, supports CJR’s reporting on transparency issues) has a post setting the table for the hearing from a transparency-minded perspective, closing with four questions the Judiciary Committee could ask Sotomayor about making federal judicial documents—like hearing transcripts, decisions, and briefs—more easily available online:

* Would she support requiring the Supreme Court to place all of its decisions online, going back to the founding of the country? Those rulings, after all, are the law of the land. Currently, less than a decade’s worth of decisions are made available on the Supreme Court’s web site.

* Would she support placing all merits and certiorari briefs on the Supreme Court’s web site, so that citizens can read all the arguments made before the Court, and not just the Court’s final decisions? The Court does not make any of these briefs available on its web site now, and has asked the American Bar Association to publish the merits briefs on the ABA’s web site.

* Would she support making available a contemporaneous transcript of the day’s oral arguments, including audio recordings of the arguments? If so, would she agree to publish the recordings on the Court’s website? Eventually, the National Archives releases audio recordings of arguments that took place before the Court, but not until the start of the next Term in October. However, on a few occasions, the Court has made audio of oral arguments available on the same day the arguments took place. It could do so on a regular basis, and place those audio recordings on its web site.

* Would she advocate that the federal courts should make available online — and at no charge — all proceedings before the Court (filings, orders, opinions, etc.), instead of the current PACER system which charges users to view these public documents?

It’s not likely that, if she’s confirmed, the court’s junior most member would have a lot of sway on these issues. But confirmation hearings are one of the few times when the federal judiciary lands in the media spotlight. So let’s hear a bit about making the information held by that branch of government more easily available to the public who live under the law it shapes.

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Clint Hendler is the managing editor of Mother Jones, and a former deputy editor of CJR.