Keeping cameras out of the Supreme Court

On January 20, almost thirty-two million Americans watched the president, amid the pageantry and pomp, deliver his State of the Union.  Each day, anyone can turn his television to C-SPAN and watch congressmen discuss new legislation.  But one branch of government remains closed to media prying – the United States Supreme Court.

Throughout its history, the Court has never allowed cameras inside its hallowed chambers.  A bastion of calculated progress, the Court “will often choose to be late to the harvest of American ingenuity,” wrote Chief Justice John G. Roberts in his 2014 Annual Report.  Yet many believe that the lack of cameras obstructs democracy and deprives citizens of the opportunity to observe the daily business of the Court.

But they’re wrong.

The democracy argument is thin.  Yes, showing a video could be a tremendous civics tool, but how many teachers use Senate floor debates in their classrooms?  Few.  For every person who watched the Court and delved into the issues, there would be thousands who watch a clip on the news that distorts the Court’s work.

As for transparency, oral arguments – hour-long hearings whereby the justices engage each side with questions – would be the only part of the job filmed.  Yet decisions are based primarily on the content of the briefs (available online); cameras would never be allowed in the conference room (where the justices discuss the cases); and transcripts and audio recordings of the oral arguments are already available.  The only insight citizens receive into the Court’s decisions are the (available) written opinions.  What further transparency would be gained by adding video?  None.

Anti-camera advocates cite “grandstanding” as the inevitable consequence.  The fear is that lawyers and even some justices will use the new medium to take to their soapboxes.  Nightly news programs would air ten-second clips and misrepresent the cases and arguments.  Granted, most lawyers appearing before the Court already have distinguished résumés and don’t need the exposure, but being on camera could provide the opportunity to influence public perception, make grand speeches, and attract new clients. 

Now, the nature of the oral argument format doesn’t lend itself to magnificent oratory; it often takes a more conversational tone.  But the justices use the time to ask questions that clarify their understanding of the briefs.  They probe the attorneys on complex facets of law – facets that would bore most Americans, even in high-profile cases.

Take the health care cases, for instance; clips of lawyers talking about high-minded philosophy and government intrusion (not part of the actual arguments) would make for better television than the complexities of the Commerce Clause and the Anti-Injunction Act (actual content).  The Court would gain nothing from these arguments, and in this case, cameras actually hinder justice being done.

Everything is political.  Remember Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s disability?  Would he have been elected president in today’s media-driven world?  Probably not.  Could that translate to judicial selections – choosing justices based on appearance or youth, rather than legal expertise? 

Many would say this is a stretch, but look at the stories that capture the public’s eye: Marco Rubio grabbing a water bottle during his SOTU rebuttal, or Chris Christie sitting in the Dallas Cowboys’ owner’s box with Jerry Jones.  No one remembers the substance of the Florida gubernatorial debate, but everyone remembers that infamous electric fan.  I wouldn’t put anything past today’s politics.

Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram are ephemeral at best.  The twenty-four-hour news cycle continues to shape public discourse.  Do we really want the United States Supreme Court infected?  Alexander Hamilton suggested that the “complete independence of the courts of justice is … essential” in a constitutional democracy.  We can better achieve this goal by keeping the Court out of American living rooms. 

I write this as an avid fan of the Court – one of the few who would watch their proceedings on C-SPAN.  But allowing cameras presents too many risks, and a Court removed from the political gamesmanship and spotlight is a better, more objective Court.