Sens. Chuck Grassley and Dick Durbin reintroduced a bill this week to require the U.S. Supreme Court to allow cameras to film proceedings. Here’s hoping Congress moves quickly to pass it.
The court’s prohibition on cameras is an antiquated stance that should have ended long ago. It is nonsensical to claim cameras would disrupt or otherwise impede proceedings when most states have cameras in their courtrooms every single day without issue.
In fact, televising the sessions of the U.S. Supreme Court would likely cause fewer issues than doing so at the district court level in Iowa. The court is, at its heart, an appeals court. Proceedings don’t involve witnesses or juries. It involves a panel of justices listening to, and often closely questioning, two attorneys, with set time limits for each side’s presentations.
There are no situations within that scenario that would require muting the audio, as happens during bench conferences in Iowa district courts. There are no jurors whose identities must be concealed by camera angles.
Yet the justices resist such a commonsense step. They use rhetorical gymnastics to disavow previous statements in support of allowing cameras, as Justices Clarence Thomas (1991), Ruth Bader Ginsburg (1993) and Elena Kagan (2010) each did in their confirmation hearings.
If a witness changed their tune as suddenly and as thoroughly as the above justices did, court officials would surely wonder why. Claims made to justify the ban — that cameras would lead justices to grandstand, that the public wouldn’t understand the proceedings — don’t hold up.
We would go further, actually, to say the objections are patently ridiculous. The justices already grandstand from the bench. Does anyone believe a justice who reads a dissent in court today is doing anything other than grandstanding? And just how is the public’s understanding of proceedings in any way advanced by continuing to limit their opportunity to view them?
A test in which cameras were allowed in some federal courts to film proceedings came off without a hitch, just as has happened in the state courts. We’re not at all surprised at that result, nor are we surprised that the Supreme Court continues to ignore the evidence.
What drives the court’s intransigence is less a matter of the probable effect of cameras than the court’s own sense of self importance. It sees itself as a special island, a place above the vulgar view of a camera’s lens.
The court is, in fact, a special place. We would argue there are few locations so critical to American government and tradition. But if that value is solely maintained by a ban on cameras, the court’s already in trouble.
The simple reality is that there is no rational argument against allowing cameras into the high court’s chamber. People do not learn more by seeing less. If a judge’s ability to maintain the decorum demanded of such a position is dependent on whether cameras are present, that judge is not fit to sit on the court.
It’s no surprise the measure from Grassley and Durbin was offered this week. It was a calculated move, one that played to the existing publicity surrounding Sunshine Week.
It may be no more than a symbolic step. Even if it passes, the law can be challenged. The court could, in fact, hold such a law to be unconstitutional.
We’d love to see the video of that proceeding, though.