As the U.S. Supreme Court handed down several landmark decisions at the end of its most recent term, Americans got the news through a modern version of the Pony Express.
Cable television networks had interns and staffers, usually dressed in suits and sneakers, gather the printed decisions and sprint the several hundred feet down the steps of the court building to make the handoff to reporters, who then tried to decipher the complicated text in seconds.
Sometimes this awkward process goes awry, as it did when CNN wrongly reported the court’s ruling on the Affordable Care Act.
There really is a better way, if the justices would allow it. That’s live, televised coverage of their oral arguments and reading of their decisions.
Nearly all court sessions are open to the public, but only a handful of spectators can attend. There is no live audio or video transmission of open court sessions. Audio recording and transcripts of oral arguments are released after a delay, but there is no video recording. It’s time to put cameras in the Supreme Court.
Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., and Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, recently introduced legislation that would require all open court sessions to be televised unless a majority of justices find that cameras would violate the due process rights of a party or parties in a case. Similar proposals have failed, but they have pushed the court toward more transparency.
But cameras ? Nope. Justice Anthony Kennedy has said cameras would cause his colleagues to behave theatrically to attract airtime. Justice Antonin Scalia has said televised proceedings would “miseducate” the public. Justice Elena Kagan is the only vocal proponent on the court for cameras.
Can Congress require the Supreme Court to do this? Ron Rotunda, law professor at Chapman University, told us he “cannot conceive of any constitutional reason the court could give” to block such a law, but the court “could just make it up and give a pronouncement.”
The court shouldn’t need to be prodded into transparency. Justices, let the public see what you’re doing.