The Big Picture

Patrick Goldstein and James Rainey
on entertainment and media

« Previous Post | The Big Picture Home | Next Post »

Join the Supreme Court debate: Would you ban ultra-violent video games?

November 4, 2010 |  6:56 am

Antonin_scalia I'm not a lawyer. I don't even play one on TV. But I know great dialogue when I hear it, and after reading the transcripts (courtesy of the Feed) of Tuesday's Supreme Court debate over whether to uphold a California law that would ban the sale of ultra-violent video games to minors, all I can say is -- Aaron Sorkin, eat your heart out.

I've always heard that it was tough for lawyers to go before the great minds of the highest court in the land, but my heart really went out to Zackery P. Morazzini, a deputy state attorney general for California who got stuck trying to make the state's case before a room full of skeptical, often smart-aleck Supreme Court justices.

You get the feeling that being a lawyer before the Supreme Court is a lot like being a guest on David Letterman -- you're often just a fat target for barbed questions and sly humor. Morazzini had just gotten warmed up, trying to explain why he wanted the court to restrict kids from buying these "deviant, violent" video games when Justice Antonin Scalia jumped in, archly wondering "What's a deviant -- a deviant, violent video game? As opposed to what? A normal violent video game?" Morazzini struggled but he couldn't escape Scalia's trap:

Mr. Morazzini: Yes, your honor. Deviant would be departing from established norms.

Justice Scalia: There are established norms of violence?

Mr. Morazzini: Well, I think if you look back --

Justice Scalia: Some of the Grimm's fairy tales are quite grim, to tell you the truth.

Mr. Morazinni: Agreed, your honor. But the level of violence --

Justice Scalia: Are they OK? Are you going to ban them too?

As soon as Scalia finished pummeling him, Justice Elena Kagan joined in, asking if the state planned to rely on scientific studies as a basis for regulating video games, would it do the same for films if a new study found that movies were just as violent? Morazzini argued that there was already a wealth of scientific literature available speaking to the issue of violence in film. This prompted Justice Sonia Sotomayor to stick the needle in:

Justice Sotomayor: I don't think; is that answering Justice Kagan's question? One of the studies, the Anderson study, says that the effect of violence is the same for a Bugs Bunny episode as it is for a violent video. So can the legislation now, because it has that study, say we can outlaw Bugs Bunny?

Mr. Morazzini: No.

Morazzini did get some friendly questioning, especially from Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. as well as Justices Stephen G. Breyer and Samuel A. Alito Jr., signaling that it might be a close vote in any eventual court decision. I found myself in agreement with Breyer, who asked why, if stores are forbidden from selling pictures of naked women (or worse) to minors, then why wasn't it simply common sense to ban the sale of gratuitously violent video games as well? But I have to admit that some of the other judges' skepticism seemed warranted.

Still, everything else being equal, I don't see why Scalia shouldn't have his own Comedy Central show. At one point, when Morazzini was asked if California had some kind of office that could establish standards for violence in video games, Scalia told him, sarcastically, that the state should create one.

Justice Scalia: You might call it the California office of censorship. It would judge each of these videos one by one. That would be very nice.

Mr. Morazzini: Your honor, we -- we ask juries to judge sexual material and its appropriateness for minors as well. I believe that if -- if we can view the --

Justice Scalia: Do we let the government do that? Juries are not controllable. That's the wonderful thing about juries. Also the worst thing about juries. (Laughter)

I guess I should spend more time reading Supreme Court transcripts. Who knew an argument over free speech could be so much fun? 

Photo: Justice Antonin Scalia  Credit: Tim Sloan / AFP Photo