U.S. Marshals Service risks becoming thugs for the imperial judiciaryAntonin Scalia has apologized for an incident last week in which a deputy U.S. marshal seized and destroyed reporters' recordings of his speech to Mississippi high school students. This is reassuring but doesn't help alleviate larger concerns.
According to the local newspaper whose reporter was rousted, the leader of the U.S. Supreme Court's right wing called the seizure "upsetting and indeed enraging." So true.
Scalia blamed the incident on a failure to communicate a change in ground rules between the high school event and one at a college earlier in the day. At the college, it was formally announced no audio or visual recordings would be permitted of Scalia's remarks.
Nothing apparently was explicitly decided about recordings at the high school event, and Scalia portrays the seizure there as an innocent mistake by an overzealous U.S. Marshals Service, which is tasked by law with protecting federal judges.
Scalia's apology may be sincere, but his explanation is hogwash.
He has long elevated himself above public employees by barring recordings of his public speeches, having the Marshals Service enforce a royal decree that no U.S. president would ever make or get away with.
No one forces this highly politicized justice to go out in public and make speeches. He is to be commended for doing so, helping people understand his views and the operations of the court. But having elected to speak, he has no right or privilege to restrict how others record his words.
Officials who refuse to be recorded are inherently suspect. Denying electronic confirmation and retrieval of their exact phrases means they can claim reported quotes were incorrect or out of context. In particular, the statements of a Supreme Court justice are of great contemporary and historical interest, and clearly are fair game for any reporter in the vicinity. Given the complexity of legal issues, the exactitude provided by tape recording is essential.
Scalia had no more right to deny recordings of his remarks at the college than he did at the high school. And the Marshals Service was absolutely wrong to acquiesce in Scalia's order. Even a Supreme Court justice doesn't get to write himself an exception to the constitutionally guaranteed freedom of the press, or to violate a federal law explicitly protecting reporters' notes, recordings and other work products.
This incident is all too similar to another case in which the Secret Service arrested a political activist in South Carolina in 2002 for holding up a sign within sight of the president instead of in a designated area located blocks away.
The Secret Service and the Marshals Service are in danger of becoming identified as the Praetorian Guard, the well-dressed thugs of an imperial presidency and judiciary.