Supreme Arrogance  | American Journalism Review
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From AJR,   December/January 2011

Supreme Arrogance   

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Its time for the U.S. Supreme Court to allow TV coverage of its proceedings. Posted: Wed, Dec. 22 2010

By Rem Rieder
Rem Rieder (rrieder@ajr.umd.edu) is AJR's editor and senior vice president.      


In his farewell address after 30 years in the U.S. Senate, Arlen Specter repeated his call for legislation requiring the U.S. Supreme Court to invite television cameras in.

"Congress could at least require televising the court proceedings to provide some transparency to inform the public about how the court is the final word on the cutting issues of the day in our society," the Pennsylvania Democrat said. "[The late Justice Louis] Brandeis was right that sunlight is the best disinfectant."

Good for Specter. He's absolutely right. It's ludicrous that the Supreme Court won't allow cameras in its own courtroom.

Last time I checked, the Supreme Court was part of the federal government. As such, it should be subject to the same scrutiny as the other branches of government.

What's more, nobody is talking about filming the justices' behind-closed-doors deliberations. The cameras would be aimed at the court's oral arguments, which already are open to the public.

Putting TV cameras in the high court has long been a major objective for Specter, and he clearly was disappointed that he was unsuccessful in his efforts to push through a law to make it happen. C-SPAN founder and CEO Brian Lamb also has long pushed for permission to televise the proceedings, but his approach has been to try to get the justices to invite the sunshine in voluntarily.

Good luck with that.

No doubt that would be a much cleaner approach. It wouldn't raise any separation of powers questions. But the justices thus far have fiercely resisted all calls for ending the blackout.

There are two major arguments against cameras in the court. One is that televising the proceedings would encourage lawyers to play to the camera, to showboat. Second, clips might be taken out of context and broadcast in a misleading way on the nation's newscasts.

While the notion of lawyers indulging in pyrotechnics is not unheard of, I'm not sure that's necessarily the approach to take in trying to win over the Supremes, cameras or no cameras. Seems to me that would be more likely to alienate the justices than to persuade them. Not even the late Johnnie Cochran would have wanted to do that.

As for the risk of spurious sound bites, of course that could happen. Just as it could, and does, in coverage of presidential press conferences and congressional debates and everything else that goes on TV.

But the risk of flawed journalism is the price we pay for having a free press. Why should the justices be permitted to opt out? They are Supreme Court justices, not Supreme Beings.

But change may be on the way. The two newest justices, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan, indicated they would support cameras in the high court when asked about the issue during their confirmation hearings.

And Justice David Souter, who in 1996 proclaimed that any TV camera that showed up would have to "roll over my dead body," has retired.

Let's hope that the justices come to their senses and move in the direction of transparency, sooner rather than later.

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