The following editorial appeared recently in the Chicago Tribune:
As the 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. SCOTUSblog, the go-to website for high court junkies, has a reporter scan the decision and electronically relay the highlights to an editor, who posts it on the blog.
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.
Most people view the Supreme Court as ... well, most don't really think about the court. Two-thirds of Americans can't name a single justice. Those who are familiar with the court seem to view it as almost mythical. And maybe that's what the justices want, but for such a powerful body to shield itself from the public eye is a disservice.
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. The court started to release same-day transcripts of oral arguments on its website in 2006. It posted same-day audio recordings of recent Obamacare, DOMA and Prop 8 oral arguments.
But cameras? Nope. Retired Supreme Court Justice David Souter once famously said, "I can tell you the day you see a camera come into our courtroom, it's going to roll over my dead body."
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.
It's possible that some justices would preen for the cameras. But participants in televised hearings in lower courts have largely exhibited decorum. The conduct of the George Zimmerman trial was a good example — low on theatrics, high on learning experience for those who viewed it.
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.
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