The media can pierce most aspects of the American government, allowing for a degree of transparency that was unattainable before the introduction of cameras and video coverage. C-SPAN has been devoted to public affairs coverage since 1979, televising proceedings on the House and Senate floors, White House briefings and speeches and political party events. One sector, however, has persistently refused camera coverage of its proceedings — the Supreme Court. More specifically, the nine Supreme Court justices have repeatedly turned down requests made by journalists, attorneys and public citizens to allow cameras in specific cases brought to the court.
While their arguments against allowing cameras inside are warranted, and each justice surely acts in what he or she feels is the best interest of the court, it is in the best interest of this democracy that live coverage be permitted in the courts. Cameras have been allowed in lower courts in all 50 states, with even Justice Sonia Sotomayor reporting positive experiences working in courts that allowed cameras in the past.
Anxiety at the idea of live video coverage during court proceedings has been expressed by judges, attorneys and various government officials, ranging from skepticism to outright aversion to the thought. Some of these worries stem from past results in lower court proceedings — media coverage, inevitably, will contribute to a mark of sensationalism in any case brought to the court. It may also result in defendants, attorneys, and even justices, playing to the cameras, thus tarnishing the integrity of the highest court in the United States.
The position of Supreme Court justice is, of course, a prestigious one, but any official, elected directly or appointed by an elected official, should be subject to public scrutiny. Judges should be exposed to the public just as any other government employees. Their policies, positions and rulings have a direct impact on the American people and should be in the direct interest of the private citizens. Recent court cases involving major social issues, such as the health care law and gay marriage, have not been transparent to the public — exactly whom the decision will directly affect.
Due to the complexity of Supreme Court proceedings, some claim that the average American viewer would not be served well by viewing the broadcasted arguments — in fact, it would only “miseducate and misinform,” according to Justice Antonin Scalia. Currently, the line outside each Supreme Court hearing stretches far out the door, with only a maximum of 250 public citizens are permitted inside the court.
Clearly, the American people are interested in becoming more familiar with the work of the Supreme Court. The majority of viewers surely do not understand every matter debated on the Senate floor, but that does not disqualify them from having access to these proceedings. Only a small percentage of the public can fully grasp written Supreme Court rulings and notes, and, if anything, the introduction of video coverage would allow an even larger population to understand legal procedures.
On a more sentimental note, it seems a shame to lose these court cases to history. Of course, there is written documentation, articles, drawings and more, but with a medium as powerful as images and videos, it is a huge loss to keep cameras out of the courtroom. Landmark cases like Roe v. Wade, United States v. Nixon, Texas v. Johnson all now exist only in the written word. While official reports are available to anyone who chooses to seek them, there are invaluable human aspects of the cases that were left behind in the courtroom forever — a pause in the delivery of an argument, a facial expression, a hand gesture.
For the sake of future generations, and for the sake of the current generation of Americans who will bear the immediate effects of any Supreme Court decisions, allowing cameras into the courtroom is essential and quite inevitable. It is only a matter of time, and just as almost all government officials have done, the Supreme Court justices will need to adjust to the new conditions of American life and government operations. Transparency and openness is a trademark of all democratic governments — if it is truly possible to open this area to the public, then we should strive to reach that goal.
Nina Golshan is a staff columnist. Email her at email@example.com.
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