A coalition of media organizations and pro-transparency groups wants to turn the lens on the Supreme Court of the United States and is ramping up pressure to allow TV cameras in the country’s highest court.
The Coalition for Court Transparency is making an appeal to the public for its support via television commercials airing in the Washington, D.C., area and by gathering signatures for a petition to be sent to Chief Justice John Robarts. The new campaign is drawing attention to an old debate, showing the groups clearly haven’t given up on their determination to win.
“The Supreme Court’s decisions impact the lives of Americans everywhere, but only a privileged few get to see justice in action. Republicans, Democrats and a large majority of Americas support a simple fix — putting cameras in the Supreme Court,” the commercial’s narrator says.
The Supreme Court does make audio recordings of hearings that are released on Fridays and in some special cases they are made available the same day. Transcripts are also posted on the court’s website. But the top court has resisted calls for years that cameras be allowed so Americans can see, not just hear, the proceedings.
“They create a civics lesson for the public. And we think they help to build trust in that branch of our government,” Patrice McDermott, executive director of OpenTheGovernment.org, said in an interview.
“We have growing transparency in Congress, growing transparency in the executive branch, we think it’s critical to make a step toward greater transparency in the judicial branch and the Supreme Court is the key court,” said McDermott, whose organization is a member of the court transparency coalition.
Hidden camera footage captured
Last week, footage of two different Supreme Court hearings shot on a hidden camera surfaced on YouTube. The two-minute clip shows a protester interrupting proceedings and being removed by security officers. A group called 99 Rise took credit for the video, which amounts to a serious security breach.
Court officials are now reviewing the video and their security measures, according to a spokesperson for the Supreme Court. The Coalition for Court Transparency was not connected in any way to the hidden camera stunt and members of the group said in interviews that they don’t condone the action and those responsible should be penalized.
Advocates for cameras in the court say there is no good reason to keep them out and that evidence from courts that do allow filming show they do no harm.
“This has worked well in lower courts and we think the time has come for the highest court in the land to provide access to the American people of the biggest arguments of the day,” said Dennis Wharton, executive vice-president of communications at the National Association of Broadcasters.
Refusing cameras feeds into the perception held by some that the Supreme Court is too secretive, he said. “Our view is sunlight is the best disinfectant for getting information to the public and to rebut claims that this is some sort of secretive process.”
Justices concerned about impact
Justice Anthony Kennedy and Justice Stephen Breyer were asked about cameras in their court when they testified before a committee on Capitol Hill last year.
They acknowledged there would be educational benefits to cameras, but explained their hesitancy.
“We’re a very conservative institution,” said Breyer, adding that they are trustees of an important institution and don’t want to harm it. He said that he’s concerned justices would change the way they work after seeing themselves on prime-time television in a report that may not portray their comments accurately. They may then hold back on how they really want to question a lawyer, for example, he said.
“We feel, number 1, that our institution works,” Kennedy weighed in, “And in my own view there would be considerable reluctance to introduce a dynamic where I would have the instinct that one of my colleagues asked a question because we were on television.”
Kennedy said he just doesn’t want that “insidious dynamic” to intervene between him and his colleagues.
Bob Meyers, president of the National Press Foundation, said it’s a valid fear that either lawyers or justices might act differently in front of the cameras but that in reality it doesn’t happen.
Justice Breyer said he wants to see more study done on the effect of cameras in courts before the Supreme Court changes its practices. Meyers said there is no reason to wait and that the court should just go ahead and try it.
“It’s the Supreme Court. If they decided they didn’t like it, they could stop it,” he said.
Canada's Supreme Court in Ottawa has a camera in its courtroom and the feed is provided to broadcasters for their use. It also livestreams proceedings on its website as long as there is no publication ban that would prevent live coverage.