Transparency trumps tradition.
That’s the message of a newly christened cohort of media and legal groups that are demanding the Supreme Court televise its proceedings.
“The Supreme Court’s decisions impact the lives of Americans everywhere,” the Coalition for Court Transparency warns in a new 30-second television ad that the group says will run about 300 times in the Washington metro area on cable news channels. “But only a privileged few get to witness history and see justice in action.”
Those “privileged few” add up to about 250 people who are allowed into the courtroom during official proceedings. Getting a ticket to watch a high-profile case is comparable to purchasing a new iPhone model on release day, and people have been known to wait in line for days to catch the judicial branch’s greatest display of democracy in action.
Lacking entry into the justices’ exclusive quarters, most Court-watchers must wait hours before a transcript becomes available or, worse, days for audio recordings of oral arguments are posted online. (Hot-button cases, such as the 2012 review of the Affordable Care Act, are incendiary enough to warrant same-day audio releases.)
So, what’s stopping the nation’s highest court from getting with the times?
Nothing other than the justices’ own unwillingness, the coalition says, arguing that the Court could adopt cameras the moment it wanted to.
Some see a bigger threat: Focusing cameras on the Supreme Court will mean that the Supreme Court plays to the camera, changing the tenor of the nation’s highest-stakes judicial deliberations.
The Supremes are “worried that if you put cameras in there, everybody will start playing to the cameras,” Justice Elena Kagan admitted in 2011i. And Justice Antonin Scalia told C-SPAN in 2012:
I am against [cameras in the Court] because I do not believe, as the proponents of television in the Court assert, that the purpose of televising our hearings would be to educate the American people.”¦ Your outfit would carry it all, to be sure, but what most of Americans would see would be 30-second, 15-second takeouts from our argument, and those would not be characteristic of what we do, they would be uncharacteristic.
Other justices have likewise expressed doubt about cameras’ place on their turf.
And, all things considered, the Supreme Court is doing a relatively decent job of adjudicating, if opinion polling is any indication. Although approval has fallen mightily in the past few years, from 61 percent in 2009 to 46 percent now, according to Gallup tracking, the Court is still wildly more popular than Congress, whose approval rating dropped down to single digits last year.
The sour views of Congress persists despite gavel-to-gavel coverage of the Capitol’s daily proceedings, courtesy of the Cable-Satellite Public Affairs Network, which fans and detractors alike know better as C-SPAN. The television channel was created in 1979 as a public service by the cable industry, but some wonder whether having cameras on 24/7 has contributed to political discord.
“After C-SPAN went on the air, in 1979, the cozy atmosphere that encouraged both deliberation and backroom deals began to yield to transparency and, with it, posturing,” George Packer wrote in a 2010 New Yorker essay exploring the many malfunctions of the Senate.
Political theater has always existed in Congress, but it’s hard to imagine that Sen. Ted Cruz would have waged a 21-hour fake filibuster ahead of October’s government shutdown had the cameras lights not been on.
Unquestionably, the Supreme Court has assumed heightened cultural interest in recent years, as landmark rulings on campaign finance, health care reform, voting rights, immigration, and gay marriage captivated millions of people who, lacking any better option, mostly turned to SCOTUSblog (or relied on sometimes inaccurate cable news reporting) to learn about a decision.
And other courts are warming to the digital world. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit began allowing live audio streaming of its proceedings this year, after becoming the first federal Appellate Court to provide live video coverage of oral arguments.
As the coalition notes, all 50 state supreme courts allow electronic recording equipment to differing degrees, and the Judicial Conference of the United States has put cameras in 14 federal courts as part of a “three-year, multidistrict pilot program to study the effect of broadcasting federal court proceedings.”
But although watching clips of Justice Scalia comparing broccoli to the nation’s health care market or accusing his colleagues of deeming gay-marriage opponents “enemies of the human race” might sound like an obvious societal gain, pro-camera advocates face an uphill battle. The highest court is notorious for dragging its feet when it comes to changing its protocol, and the justices appear to enjoy perpetuating the antiquated relics of benches past.