Making the case for cameras in the Supreme Court

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

The disputed subject of placing television cameras in the U.S. Supreme Court has evoked passion for decades on both sides of the argument, with – no surprise – the justices’ “no” winning out.

Periodically, there’s voice worth hearing that moves the discussion forward, such as the latest commentary from Tony Mauro, Supreme Court correspondent for Legal Times, appearing in The National Law Journal.

Mauro uses the recent arguments before the Court on gay marriage as an example of “how useful and informative camera access would have been.”  He notes that the Court’s decision to release same-day audio of the sessions made for excellent additional material in news reports.

But he also took the court to task for ignoring the public’s desire – in this case and others – to see for itself how the Court conducts the public’s business.

The criticism started with the multi-day wait in line for the few seats available to the general public inside the Court. “The line seemed more befitting of a music hall or an Apple store on the eve of the release of a new iPhone,” Mauro wrote.

Mauro also wrote that, “In one sense, the avid interest of those in line was a healthy sign that people really care about the issue and about how the Supreme Court — their Supreme Court — would handle it.  In another sense, it was a disgrace.

“The notion that spectators have to camp out or spend money to see a public institution do public business is offensive. It is the direct result of the court’s arrogant and stubborn refusal to allow cameras to record and broadcast its proceedings.

“Some of those waiting for days for seats might still do so if cameras were allowed, but it is a safe bet that most would have preferred to watch the oral arguments in the comfort of home on C-SPAN rather than wait in line over several cold and snowy days in March.”

For Mauro, the issue comes down to this: “They (justices) are fearful of the changes that cameras might trigger in the dynamics between justices and advocates and with each other — as if the court were a fragile flower, instead of the sturdy institution it is, an institution that usually holds up well under public scrutiny.”

There is one other notion to consider that actually argues for cameras in higher courts, if not at the trial level.  Pre-trial and trial court proceedings necessarily take days or weeks to unfold – challenging even the most-ardent viewer to fully recall or assess the dynamics of detailed testimony and motions, and the accumulation of evidence. Tidy, one-hour “trials” on TV’s Law and Order, those proceedings are not.

And unless the viewer agrees to only take bathroom or meal breaks when the jurors or litigants do, a feeling of having “seen the trial” might be misleading – though experiences at the local and state levels with TV coverage don’t seem to support such misimpressions.

But at the appellate levels, including the Supreme Court, the drama and the process are much briefer – a few hours, at most.  True, there are legal briefs undergirding those oral exchanges. But in the vast majority of instances, those written documents are available online, many in advance of the oral arguments.

Focused, intelligent and relevant critical thinking from diverse points of view are all the more necessary in an era of self-selected “apps” and Web home pages, cable TV channels and talk radio stations that over time just tell us what we want to hear, not necessarily what we need to know.

Against that electronic backdrop, there’s good reason for nation’s highest court to be even more visible to the ultimate jury of its peers – the American public.

 

 

 

 

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