A lawyer discovered how far the U.S. Supreme Court will go to close itself off from the public when it hears a case, no matter how many people on Twitter may be interested.
Casey Mattox went to the court on Tuesday to see historic arguments over whether to strike down the Obama administration's healthcare law.
His plan was to give live updates and the idea appeared to work as descriptions from the arguments showed up on the Twitter feed of the Alliance Defense Fund, a conservative legal group where Mattox is a senior counsel.
But after finding out about the social networking, the court marshal's office asked Mattox to stop, citing a policy against electronic communication, a spokeswoman for the Alliance Defense Fund said afterward.
Mattox "complied with the marshal's directions when asked to stop communicating," said the spokeswoman, Katie Blechacz.
Except for the errant tweets, and reports from journalists who left the proceedings early, the only way to follow the healthcare case was to wait in the dark until after Tuesday morning's two hours of arguments.
No cameras allowed
Cameras are not allowed in the courtroom, and the court waits until arguments are over to release audio recordings. Journalists inside have only paper and a pen or pencil.
The rules are an attempt to maintain decorum and limit the influence of the media on what lawyers and the justices say.
Mattox was not in the 400-seat courtroom but instead was listening to the arguments as they were piped into a separate overflow room known as the lawyers' lounge. The room is reserved for any of the 230,000 lawyers who are active members of the Supreme Court Bar.
At intervals, Mattox would leave the room and, from a hallway, send e-mails to an Alliance Defense Fund staff member who was on the social network Twitter, Blechacz said.
"Justice Sotomayor asks for explanation on the three seemingly different arguments from Solicitor General. #ObamaCare #SCOTUS," read one typical tweet by
@AllianceDefense at 10:29 a.m. EDT (1429 GMT).
The group initially defended the tweets, telling its followers that it was "posting twitter updates remotely" from its headquarters in Arizona, not from the court. By late Tuesday, it had 4,800 followers.
Its final update quoting the arguments came at 11:14 a.m., or about 46 minutes before the arguments ended.
Supreme Court spokeswoman Kathy Arberg said there are two signs in the lawyers' lounge noting that cellular phones and other electronic devices are prohibited in the room. Lawyers can check personal belongings in a separate room.
Still, Blechacz said there was confusion and that Mattox was unaware of any written rules ahead of time. Mattox was not available for an interview, she said.
A news release from the organization dated March 26 promoted the idea ahead of time, saying that Mattox "will be providing live Twitter updates from the ObamaCare oral arguments."
The Alliance Defense Fund opposes the healthcare law and its requirement that most people have health insurance. It submitted a legal brief on the side of the challengers.
Lawyers who dabble in the media have found the audio in the lawyers' lounge tempting before.
"I live blogged from there once and the court banned it," said Thomas Goldstein, a lawyer who founded the popular website SCOTUSblog. "Now I leave the building."