The U.S. Supreme Court is several things. It is one of the greatest objects of public attention in the life of 21st century America -- witness the intense interest in the nomination of Judge Sonia Sotomayor to its select ranks. But the court is also a living relic of the 18th century, steeped in its own traditions.
At the court, the age of the quill pen hangs on tenaciously in the age of modern communications. Most tellingly, television cameras are not allowed. That means the public gallery will never be big enough to accommodate the great mass of the American people interested in its proceedings.
A reminder of the strangeness of this situation will come July 13, when the Senate Judiciary Committee will start its hearings for Judge Sotomayor. Of course, the hearings will be televised -- it would be unthinkable if they weren't. Millions of Americans will watch and learn.
But if Judge Sotomayor is confirmed, she will then retreat to a bench that few people ever see hear a case. Why? The arguments to keep cameras out wither before the strong light of public interest. Yes, some justices and some attorneys may play to the camera during oral arguments, but those tempted to cut a witty and learned figure already have the press gallery to impress.
The real reason that cameras aren't allowed seems more like historical inertia, the large weight of tradition and the fear of change.
As it happens, the nomination of Judge Sotomayor, an Hispanic woman whose nomination is itself a symbol of change and who has experience with cameras in a courtroom, provides the perfect occasion to signal that this really is the 21st century, especially as the justice she would replace, David Souter, is on record as saying: "I can tell you the day you see a camera come into our courtroom, it's going to roll over my dead body."
Sen. Arlen Specter, Pennsylvania's convert Democrat who has championed the cause of cameras in the Supreme Court, told his senate colleagues recently that he intended to question Judge Sotomayor during her confirmation hearing. He has sent a letter to the judge stating his position and the questions he would like answered.
Let's hope she answers positively and unambiguously. When Chief Justice John Roberts was asked where he stood in his 2005 confirmation hearing, he was non-commital but expressed a wish to consult with fellow justices. A new justice with a fresh view might help hasten the day when all Americans can have a front-row seat at the nation's top court -- as they should.