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Stonehenge Justices: The U.S. Supreme Court’s Stuffy Ban on TV Cameras and Live Audio

| March 25, 2012

us supreme court cameras audio live feed

You call that a public courtroom?

For three days beginning Monday, the United States Supreme Court will hear arguments in the case of the national health law. The question at the heart of the case is whether it’s constitutional to force people to buy health insurance or pay a fee if they don’t. It’s the most anticipated and the most important Supreme Court case since Bush v. Gore in 2000.

pierre tristam column flaglerlive And you won’t get to see it, ever. Or hear it live, because even as the justices of the Supreme Court presume to be interpreting the law of the land for at least the next generation, they continue to live in a medieval world of their making by refusing to allow cameras in the courtroom, or even a live audio feed.

That’s absurd. Whatever you may think about the health care law, for or against, there should be no dispute over lifting the veil on the Supreme Court. Every argument justices make against cameras is weak, speculative or demonstrably false—exactly the sort of arguments they would deride as sitting judges hearing a flabby case.

“If you introduce cameras,” Justice Anthony Kennedy said, “it is human nature for me to suspect from time to time that one of my colleagues is saying something for a sound bite.” So what? Hours of historic court arguments shouldn’t be held hostage to fear of the occasional sound bite. Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote in nothing but sound bites even before the invention of television. He knew it, too. The law is not the poorer for it. To the contrary. Justice Antonin Scalia, who’s never had anything good to say about mob rule, was perfectly happy to let the mob make this decision for him: “For every 10 people who sat through our proceedings gavel to gavel,” he told Congress in 2011, “there would be 10,000 who would see nothing but a 30-second take-out from one of the proceedings.” Why should that 10,000 have precedence over the 10? And where is Scalia getting that self-serving math from?

Here’s some embarrassing math. There are just 400 seats in the justices’ courtroom. Just 50 seats are reserved for people waiting in line. The rest are controlled by court staff, the two sides doing battle, the media, while almost a quarter of the seats are controlled by the nine justices, who give them away in a weird little game of patronage. There’s also a gallery where people can file in for three-minute glimpses of the robed ones in action. You’d think they were wearing the shroud of Turin or that this was Stonehenge, not the highest court of a technologically cutting edge and supposedly democratic nation.

For years members of Congress made the same arguments against letting cameras in. It would cheapen their proceedings. Lawmakers would grandstand. People wouldn’t watch. None of those arguments trumped the people’s right to see their government in action, as Brian Lamb, C-Span’s founder and visionary, well knew (Lamb announced his semi-retirement effective April 1). The very first television broadcast of the U.S. House of Representatives took place at high noon on March 19, 1979, when C-Span went on the air for the first time. The House debated something about shipping lottery tickets to foreign countries. A dozen members of the House made their usual one-minute speeches. A few formalities took place at the beginning and the end. And that was it. The republic survived. Seven years later, the U.S. Senate opened its chamber to TV cameras, mostly thanks to the persistence of the late Sen. Robert C. Byrd, the West Virginia monument.

Courts caught on. Every state court system, including state supreme courts, now allows cameras in. Justice hasn’t suffered. It’s become more transparent. Florida’s supreme court justices are not less august or less respected for broadcasting their oral arguments live on the Florida Channel. They’re merely less snobbish about it.

Ironically, the justices have been recording their oral arguments since 1955. They never let on until Peter Irons, a legal scholar, discovered the recordings at the National Archives in the early 1990s and packaged some of them for sale in 1993: Roe v. Wade, Miranda v. Arizona, the Pentagon Papers case—you could finally hear them all. As scratchy as they sound, and as difficult as it may be to make out which justice is saying what, they’re the intellectual equivalent of a George Lucas flick: it’s hard to turn away. Yet in another display of judicial snootiness, the court tried to stop Irons from selling what amounts to recordings of public proceedings. It backed down, and now all oral arguments going back to 1955 are available on the web.

This year the court agreed to release audio of arguments at the end of each week’s arguments, and in the case of the health care law they’ve agreed to release the audio at the end of the day (as they did with Bush v. Gore). It’s an improvement. But it’s not enough. These nine justices need to get over themselves. The Supreme Court isn’t their court. It’s the people’s court. Turn off the arrogant stuffiness, turn on the live cameras and let the 21st century in.

Pierre Tristam is FlaglerLive’s editor. Reach him by email here.

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10 Responses for “Stonehenge Justices: The U.S. Supreme Court’s Stuffy Ban on TV Cameras and Live Audio”

  1. Angela Smith via Facebook says:

    IMO, there is MUCH more to their reluctance than just “shabby reasoning and stuffed up conceits”.

  2. Liana G says:

    More distraction that could have been avoided!! Meanwhile, just last week Congress unanimously passed HR 347 by a 399-3 vote (Ron Paul (R), Paul Broun (R), and Justin Amash (R) were the 3 nays) which now gives federal agents the right to arrest and charge citizens with felony for engaging in any form of protests anywhere in the USA. None in the mainstream media reported this. FREE SPEECH IS NOW A FELONY! And violators could face up to 10 years in prison.

    The First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States of America:

    “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

    • Think first, act second says:

      You distorted the content of the law. The law does not say federal agents have the right to arrest and charge anywhere in the USA. What it does say is that anyone who acts houliganistic and wants to disrupt the normal workings of government or where the secret service may be present, Wisconsin comes to mind. I am not a real fan of limiting freedom of speech, but only when organized and legal, not out of control.

  3. B. Claire says:

    Very much agree, Pierre:

    “It’s an improvement. But it’s not enough. These nine justices need to get over themselves. The Supreme Court isn’t their court. It’s the people’s court. Turn off the arrogant stuffiness, turn on the live cameras and let the 21st century in.”

    Not like they haven’t lost all credibility anyway…between Clarence Thomas, Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission and putting their thumb on the scales of justice for ‘W’.

    We should have the choice to watch these proceedings.

    Also would have loved to see this happen for Brian Lamb. He too agrees and fought mightily for televising these proceedings. After 34 years with C-SPAN, Brian Lamb [master of nonpartisanship] is stepping down. He is founder and CEO. He was a pioneer in cable television when he pushed for public access to government proceedings. Congress at first resisted, but the House eventually opened its doors to cameras, and the Senate later followed.

  4. John Boy says:

    Thomas should have recluse himself, his wife received over$700,000. to work against Obama Care from the Heritage Foundation and other special interest groups. Oh, by the way, he forgot to mention this on his annual financial disclosure report.

  5. palmcoaster says:

    Democratic Republic…???

  6. Sammy says:

    Everything in America has been disgraced or destroyed by Political Correctness. Go ahead and put the camera’s and recorders in the room with our Supreme Court Judges. Let’s let the last bit of America’s Constitutional Pride and Patriotism be destroyed by the liberal left and their socialist/marxist ideaology.

  7. Think first, act second says:

    John Boy and B. Claire you two have glaringly omitted Elena Kagan and her involvement in the Obamacare legislation when she was solicitor general. Ethically how can she sit in judgment of the law which she helped mold the strategy to get the law passed, before they had the 60th vote (Snowe). Seems that you should have equal outrage on this justice, but it is missing?

  8. Think first, act second says:

    Well I have listened to 3 days of testimony, delayed by 3 hours and I am still alive and understand all that they said. Why do I, or you, need live feed? I think frankly that Kagan and especially Sotomayor were grandstanding for the media and attendees, but not having heard prior hearings how would I know for sure. It sounded to me like they were trying to interject them into the debate when they really didn’t have a need to do so, they were reading from the transcripts. Calling them Stonehenge is a little over the top!

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