Whether to allow cameras inside the U.S. Supreme Court has proven a contentious issue for years, but the leak of a bombshell draft opinion poised to overturn 1973's landmark Roe v. Wade ruling adds a new timeliness to the debate. Are SCOTUS' live audio feeds and transcripts enough to satisfy a curious public on such consequential decisions? Or are Americans entitled to witness high court hearings in real time?
Cameras could turn SCOTUS into Congress
Perhaps the most prominent criticism when it comes to televised SCOTUS proceedings is that cameras might promote performative courtroom behavior from lawyers and possible political grandstanding from justices looking to score a slot on the evening news. In other words, "putting video cameras in the court would simply make it more like Congress," former acting U.S. attorney general Jeffrey Rosen opined for SCOTUSblog earlier this year. "We should not want our judges to be celebrities with constituencies. To the contrary, we should want them to be limited interpreters of the law, quite unlike politicians."
And even if the courtroom weren't "reduced to antics" like those on Capitol Hill, justices and attorneys would "inevitably act differently" in front of cameras, "in ways that could prove detrimental to the pursuit of justice," Washington Post columnist James Hohmann posited in March 2021. "While transparency is a net positive, however, no one can argue Congress is more effective today, let alone more civil or deliberative, than when cameras arrived" in both chambers.
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Other courts in the country do it without issue
But there's also the fact that, well, everyone else is doing it.
More specifically, cameras are now permitted in every state supreme court under certain circumstances. The U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals also "live-streams its arguments, as do other courts of appeals from time to time," law professor Eric Segall wrote in an op-ed for the Los Angeles Times in 2017. Britain, Canada, Brazil, "and many other countries" permit cameras with "virtually no negative reports or safety issues" as a result of the practice, he claimed.
Other proponents of televised proceedings have pointed out that, although live audio was only made available during the pandemic, the court has permitted "print coverage since its inception and has audio-recorded oral arguments for seven decades," largely without incident, Gabe Roth, Executive Director of Fix the Court, wrote to the Post last year. "If justices were using these exercises to spout partisan talking points in the hopes of gaining accolades or acolytes, we'd have experienced this by now," he remarked.
Lawmakers shouldn't tell justices what to do, anyway
In 2021, senators Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) and Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) introduced legislation that would require the Supreme Court to televise open proceedings. An official policy has yet to pass, but perhaps that's for the best — Congress shouldn't be "dictating the presence of video cameras at the Supreme Court" anyway, Rosen wrote in his piece for SCOTUSblog.
"Neither branch should be telling the other whether to allow video cameras at its own proceedings," he continued. "Indeed, if comity were not sufficient to induce each branch to respect the other, it seems constitutionally questionable for Congress unilaterally to intrude into the operation of the court in such a fundamental way."
Accountability for Americans
With televised proceedings, others have claimed, the American public could familiarize themselves with the nation's high court, better understand the judicial process, and, even if it didn't change the outcome, bear rightful witness to rulings of public interest, like those pertaining to gay marriage or abortion.
"Americans should be able to watch their institutions work in real time, just as they do with White House news conferences, congressional hearings and the like," New York Times op-ed contributor Jonathan Sherman wrote in 2015. And it's just an appellate court, after all, where "[h]istrionics are mostly wasted," the Los Angeles Times Editorial Board added the same year.
Watching judges and lawyers "respectfully debate contentious legal issues" would also "set a wonderful example of how public officials can disagree without undue rancor," added Segall, summarizing observations from Texas Justice Don Willett, in his piece for the Los Angeles Times.
And perhaps opening up the proceedings would help build trust in and push Americans to care more about the court, whose "decisions impact every corner of our nation," Lysette Romero Córdova mused for the American Bar Association.
For Dobbs v. Jackson Women's Health Organization, the case at the center of the leaked opinion, Raw Story reporter Matthew Chapman took the argument for added transparency one step further, advocating for "more leaks" and cameras during voting, so the court can gauge expert and public opinion as well as the conseqences of their decisions in relatively real time.
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