Their View: U.K. Supreme Court is ahead of its American cousin

Imagine if the U.S. Senate had a committee whose role was to “say what the law is.”

Might legal disputes ever get decided? And where would the judicial independence or checks and balances come in?

You see, then, why it makes eminent sense for Great Britain to move its highest appellate judges out of Parliament, where they were a committee of the House of Lords, and into their very own court building.

The Supreme Court of the United Kingdom started hearing cases the first Monday in October just like its stateside cousin and had its ceremonial opening Oct. 16. Queen Elizabeth II attended, along with U.S. Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Antonin Scalia and Stephen Breyer.

Although much of U.S. law traces its origins to British legal tradition, shifting to three separate branches of government more like ours remains a work in progress for Britain.

The U.K. court’s 12 members can no longer vote in the House of Lords, but remain members of Parliament’s upper chamber. When the current justices retire, their replacements won’t belong to the legislative branch at all.

The U.K. Supreme Court can’t overturn acts of Parliament, a feature Congress probably views with envy. And the new court doesn’t cover all of the kingdom: While it’s the ultimate appeals tribunal for civil cases from England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, Scotland has its own high court for criminal cases.

Lawyers arguing before the justices still look antiquated in their elaborate robes and white wigs, but something else also distinguishes the scene from its U.S. counterpart. The proceedings are all captured on video and available for broadcast.

That’s right: cameras in the courtroom, a modernization still eluding our very own Supreme Court nine.

A video link isn’t yet up on the U.K. court’s data-rich and wonderfully easy-to-navigate Web site, But C-SPAN has the first day’s arguments, in a case involving the frozen assets of five terror suspects, online (http://

The discussions are dry, indeed, without the aggressive, even entertaining, questioning that often punctuates U.S. Supreme Court sessions.

But at least you can watch, a privilege that not even our First Amendment makes possible here.

Prominent justices on this side of the Atlantic highly object to looking at the legal systems of other countries for guidance in interpreting the Constitution. But that shouldn’t prevent those same justices from taking note that televising the U.K. Supreme Court’s public sessions hasn’t undermined the kingdom, prompted showboating for the cameras or resulted in any invitations to appear on “Britain’s Got Talent.”

Should our high court continue to drag its collective feet on television enlightenment, maybe they’d prefer this: The U.K. court’s Web site includes a link to “Customer satisfaction survey results.”

Too soon for any yet, but what a fascinating idea.

The above editorial was originally published Oct. 26 in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. Content was made available by MCTCampus.