01 Nov 2000 The Supreme Court is Wrong to Ban Camera Coverage
The U.S. Supreme Court’s decision that it won’t allow television coverage when it hears arguments on the presidential election is a mistake.
The Court is so opposed to camera coverage that one Justice, David Souter, told a House of Representatives subcommittee in 1996 that camera coverage of the Supreme Court would occur only over his dead body.1
Whatever their skills at interpreting the Constitution, the Justices are wrong to believe the public is best served by being forbidden access to the arguments made in this case.
So wrong, in fact, that one suspects that the Justices are not solely serving the public interest.
Opponents of televised court proceedings usually cite high-minded reasons for opposing television coverage, but none seem to apply in this case.
An oft-cited reason is that lawyers and judges may try to play to the cameras, as in the infamous O.J. Simpson case. But as the lawyers in this case already have a multitude of opportunities to perform for cameras, they are hardly likely to risk their reputations or their cases by appearing to ham it up before the Supreme Court. The risk is minimal anyway: When 24 states conducted studies on the effect of camera coverage on judges and attorneys, 23 reported no effect – and the 24th state, Virginia, only reported on the views of judges with little experience with televised court proceedings.2
Opponents of camera coverage in trial courts also fear that television might intimidate witnesses or violate the privacy of victims, particularly minors. Fair enough, but proponents of camera coverage have never opposed letting judges ban cameras from trials on a case-by-case basis. Despite what partisans might say, no crime has been committed in this election case. The Supreme Court is considering constitutional questions, not airing dirty linen.
Television opponents worry, too, that televising trials and hearings might reduce public respect for court proceedings. It is difficult to see how that could happen here. When the Florida Supreme Court heard arguments relating to the presidential election, it allowed live camera coverage. Public and media commentary about the proceeding (though not necessarily the subsequent decision of the court) was uniformly respectful.
Some suspect, and some judges confirm,3 that a key reason some judges oppose cameras in courtrooms is that they value their privacy. Unlike many other public officials, judges typically can go out in public without being recognized.
If so, too high a price is being paid to allow judges to go to the supermarket in peace. There are significant benefits to allowing camera coverage, especially in a critical case like this.
Most likely, our Founding Fathers would have approved of televised court proceedings. According to the journals of the Continental Congress, the Founding Fathers desired public access to courtrooms, advocating that courtrooms be built large enough to hold entire communities and trials be held “before as many people as chuse to attend.”4 It would be impossible to build a courtroom large enough to hold all Americans with a keen interest in litigation affecting the presidential race. Camera coverage is the next best thing.
The experience of the states is instructive. 48 allow camera coverage in at least some court proceedings,5 and studies in 28 states show television coverage of court proceedings has important social and educational benefits.6
Even judges like television coverage more after they’ve had experience with it. A 1991-94 pilot project in the federal courts found that judges who had been neutral tended to become favorable once they’d had firsthand experience with cameras.7
Perhaps the best instruction comes from Congress, which permitted camera coverage in 1977, and the Senate, which followed in 1986. Sure, some elected officials bought hairpieces because of television and maybe some wear a little makeup, but no one seriously argues that the country is worse off because of C-SPAN.
In another context, the New York Times said of camera coverage of the U.S. Supreme Court: “The court is not some private club. It is not supposed to be mysterious to the public it serves. Making it more accessible, and promoting greater public understanding of the complex questions it addresses, is the best way to honor the institution.”8
Commentators have cited several changes the country might make because of this election ordeal. Among them are proposals for improved voting equipment and for changes in the Electoral College. Whether or not these changes occur, a third change is needed: television coverage of the U.S. Supreme Court should be permitted. The Court is conducting the people’s business, and the public has the right to view its work.
Amy Ridenour is president of The National Center for Public Policy Research.
Footnotes1 Report by Correspondent Rita Cosby, Fox News with Shepherd Smith, Fox News Channel, November 27, 2000.
2 “Facts and Opinions About Cameras in Courtrooms,” Court TV, January 1997.
3 According to a 1993 article by Tony Mauro in USA Today, as cited by columnist Nat Hentoff in the Washington Post on April 15, 1997, retired U.S. Supreme Court Justice Byron White told a Colorado Springs conference, referring to U.S. Supreme Court resistance to television coverage: “I am very pleased to be able to walk around, and very, very seldom am I recognized. It’s very selfish, I know.”
4 Steven Brill, “Cameras in the Courts and Original Intent,” Legal Times, week of January 22, 1996, quoting Chief Justice Warren Burger’s decision in Richmond Newspapers Inc. v. Virginia 448 U.S. 555 (1980).
5 Summary of TV Cameras in the State Courts, March 27, 1997, National Center for State Courts, downloaded April 16, 1998 from http://www.ncsc.dni.us/is/clrhouse/tv-cams.htm (webmaster note: this specific link no longer functioned as of February 2001, but other data about state courts was available at http://www.ncsc.dni.us/).
6 “Facts and Opinions About Cameras in Courtrooms.”
7 Jeffrey H. Ballabon and Jonathan Sherman, “Lifting the Veil: TV Cameras in Federal Courts,” Washington Legal Foundation Legal Backgrounder, Vol. 11, No. 41, Washington Legal Foundation, Washington, D.C., November 1, 1996.
8 New York Times editorial, January 16, 1997, as cited in “Facts and Opinions About Cameras in Courtrooms.”