Sunday, December 17, 2017
Opinion

Daniel Ruth: Supremely discreet in an age of leaks

Forgive a touch of sentimentality, but the only thing missing from this scene were some powdered wigs. They would have been a nice touch. This is the price one pays for watching too many episodes of Masterpiece Theatre.

Depending on whether you regard homosexuality as simply part of the human condition or a moral pox on society (cue the plague of locusts), you were not surprised or taken aback by, pleased with or disappointed in the U.S. Supreme Court's decisions this week to find the federal Defense of Marriage Act unconstitutional and to essentially strike down California's Proposition 8 ban on gay marriage.

Still, in this modern age of new media the court remains an anachronism — perhaps one of the last bureaucratic hermit kingdoms of the Washington beltway.

In recent times, we've seen the WikiLeaks scandal in which bazillions of what were thought to be top secret/for-your-eyes-only State Department memos were exposed. And those were just the classified communiques on Hillary Clinton's pantsuit decisions.

And over the past few weeks, controversy has swirled over revelations that a National Security Agency contractor was able to filch files exposing a vast government program to track the phone records of virtually every American, not to mention spy on every country in the world from China to Monaco.

But over at the Supreme Court as the nation awaited the gay marriage decisions, there was not so much as a rumor, a hint, a leak, not even a small piddle as to which way the rulings would go.

You would have had an easier time getting the nuclear codes than finding out ahead of time what the nine justices think of Melissa Etheridge's recent engagement announcement.

Despite the 24-hour news cycle, endless blog posts and the Twitter universe, the U.S. Supreme Court remains the last bastion of opaqueness. That leaves observers of the mysterious ways of the justices scrambling for even the most arcane tidbits of intelligence.

The court has become this country's version of divining the tea leaves of the Kremlin by dissecting the pecking order assembled atop Lenin's tomb for the annual May Day parade.

The Supremes are the Rubik's Cube of the Constitution.

For a journalist, this is maddening. There is nothing more welcomed in the scribbling game than someone who wants to whisper in your ear, or slide a packet of juicy documents across a table. As a citizen, the court's obsessive-compulsive preoccupation with shyness in a society where nothing remains very secret for very long is sort of charming.

For decades the justices have resisted allowing cameras in the courtroom, fearful perhaps the proceedings will devolve into something out of My Cousin Vinny. Even audio transcripts of cases are delayed for hours before they are released, as if the court still thinks these things are captured on reel-to-reel tapes. Perhaps they are.

But when it comes to protecting the content of opinions before they are officially released, the court has proven to be more cryptically enigmatic than North Korea meets the Skull and Bones Society.

You have to wonder if there is a lone, forlorn "Bartleby the Scrivener" soul ensconced in a deep court basement wielding a quill pen as he writes out the justices' opinions in longhand.

While the NSA, the State Department and so many other government agencies have had their share of embarrassing bean spillers, the high court guards its inner counsel with the ferocity of Mike Tyson eyeing an earlobe.

Somehow the court was able to write two of its most important opinions in years without the many law clerks, secretaries, or numerous people responsible for printing and distributing the rulings giving so much as nanosecond of thought to calling up Geraldo Rivera.

To those of us in the ink-stained wretch community, this is no fun at all.

Still, keeping their collective court yaps shut is no small accomplishment in a city filled with budding Deep Throat wanna-bes.

With the final decisions rendered, the justices scattered until October, when they will return for another term of omerta.

But given the fact the rest of the federal government, from its spookiest national security corridors to the halls of Congress, seem incapable of protecting the country's secrets, perhaps the justices would be willing to give some advice on how to prevent 29-year-old laptop Mata Haris from leaking stuff.

That is, if anyone could get the robe and dagger types to actually say anything.

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