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Guest Commentary: Cameras Have a Place in the Supreme Court

Oct 6, 2003  •  Post A Comment

The U.S. Supreme Court’s recent special session on the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act considered questions that will fundamentally affect the way political campaigns are funded throughout the nation. It also begged another question: Why wasn’t the session televised?
Judicial proceedings in the United States are meant to be public. The Supreme Court-which begins its new term Oct. 6-does maintain a notoriously small seating area for the media and for visitors, but the broader public should be able to watch the court’s consideration of the legal issues most important to our nation. The private deliberations of the justices, as they wrestle with the issues behind the scenes, should, of course, remain private. But why can’t the broader public watch the proceedings that are meant to be public?
Campaign finance reform affects us all. It may well determine the future course of our nation. And the same is true of many of the issues the court addresses. In 2000 the Supreme Court decided the outcome of the presidential election. Last spring it decided the issue of affirmative action in a way that affects every institution of higher education in the nation and, therefore, every student applying to college or graduate school. How much more important can issues get?
And the recent special session on campaign reform would have been a classic civics lesson for any American. Here was an issue of broad interest being addressed by an all-star cast of some of the most prominent lawyers in the nation, including the current solicitor general, Theodore Olson, and two former solicitors general, Kenneth Starr and Seth Waxman. What better way to demonstrate the excellence of both the American legal profession and the highest court in our land?
Some will say that the arguments can be technical and the presentations dry, but are those reasons to limit public access? Some will say that cameras would be distracting, but technology now requires only a single small camera in the back of the courtroom and no additional lighting. The camera is now less obtrusive than the reporters and sketch artists who seek to describe and portray what the unfiltered television camera lens can allow us to see and hear. And certainly, the often-expressed concerns about the impact of cameras on witnesses at the trial-court level do not apply in proceedings before the Supreme Court.
Television has the capacity, in effect, to expand the seating in the Supreme Court, just as it does in lower courts across the nation. At present, all 50 states allow cameras in some courts. Thirty-eight allow them in criminal courts. The federal judiciary permits them in certain appellate courts, but not in the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court does audiotape its public proceedings and has released several of those audiotapes, beginning with the case of the 2000 presidential election. In doing so, it acknowledged an obligation to make its proceedings more accessible to the public. But there is an enormous difference between audiotapes (delayed at that) and the immediacy of television, and in the 21st century we should have made that leap already.
Transparency is a hallmark of democracy, enabling the people to watch their government in action and to judge its performance. And that transparency is one of the qualities so admired about our nation.
Next spring, Court TV will participate in the national commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education, the landmark case in which segregation in public schools was declared unconstitutional. One can’t help but think back to the eloquent and successful argument made to the court at that time by Thurgood Marshall, then chief counsel for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People Legal Defense and Education Fund and later one of the greatest justices in Supreme Court history. If today’s technology had existed in 1954, would it really have hurt the nation for the American people to have been able to watch?
Henry Schleiff is chairman and CEO of Court TV.