It’s time to let public tune in the voices of the Supreme Court

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Editor's note: This commentary appeared in The (Baltimore) Sun on March 15, 2007. Posted with permission.

Sen. Arlen Specter wants TV cameras in the Supreme Court. The usually guarded Republican from Pennsylvania wants to pass a law to require such coverage, subject only to a due process/fair-trial exception deemed necessary by a majority of the court.

Similar proposals have been around for decades. However one feels about the merits of such legislation, such proposals may sweep too widely and too swiftly. There is a more pragmatic proposal: live radio feeds. This solution would be salutary and could carry the day for those of us who urge the Court to be more open. The Court should not allow this opportunity to pass.

To the left and right of the huge marble sculptures guarding the entrance to the Supreme Court, there are lampposts held up on the backs of tortoises. They are symbols: Like the tortoise, the tradition of the Court is to move gradually, deliberately and without fanfare. The Court is the most modest of the three branches of government; it is also the most cerebral. Its message is inextricably linked to its medium — the printed word as set out in its published opinions.

There has always been a tension between the demands of modernity and the tortoise-like movement of the Court. Insofar as television's images speed up everything, it has been deemed by some to be a medium at war with the lofty and cerebral workings of the Court. In 1989, when a consortium of broadcasters prepared a compelling report on how TV cameras might be used to televise oral arguments, the proposal drew predictable opposition.

“A majority of the court,” declared Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, “remains of the view that we should adhere to our past practice and not allow camera coverage of our proceedings.” The tortoise principle prevailed.

Where rational discourse is the coin of the chamber, the spectacle of tantalizing “tidbit coverage” or theatrical trials terrifies many or all of the current justices. Justice David H. Souter expressed just such a sentiment in 1996: “I can tell you the day you see a camera come into our courtroom, it's going to roll over my dead body.”

Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. has been cool to the idea of TV cameras in his courtroom. “There’s a concern [among justices] about the impact of television on the functioning of the institution,” he said last July. “We’re going to be very careful before we do anything that might have an adverse impact.”

Although the tortoise moves slowly, it does move. In the years since I served as a Supreme Court fellow in 1982, the Court has made measured progress. It has permitted spectators inside the Court chamber to take notes; it has allowed immediate Internet access to Court opinions; it has provided speedy and free access to transcripts of oral arguments; and it has allowed for Internet access to the official recordings of oral arguments. The Court has even made such recordings available immediately after oral arguments, though only in a select few cases.

Still, the Court can do more. For example, it should have all its oral arguments aired in real time on the radio — traditional radio and Internet radio. Admittedly, this is a small and slow step, but it is a step in the right direction. The Court already releases recordings of some of its arguments immediately after they end, so it is hard to see what insurmountable problem would arise if it did so in real time and in all cases. And yes, the justices can do this and remain true to the tortoise principle.

The arguments in the high court exemplify what rational discourse can be. For that reason alone, citizens should be privy to that discourse in some meaningful way. By that measure, the justices should welcome the opportunity to amplify their words.

It is inevitable: One day, the proceedings of the Court will be televised. Until that predictable time, traditionalists and modernists alike should work to ensure that the voices of the justices be heard, and heard now.

Ronald K.L. Collins is a scholar at the First Amendment Center. His e-mail is

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