Sotomayor's courtroom camera reversal prompts RTDNA response

February 19, 2013 01:30

During her confirmation process in 2009, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor told senators she favored allowing television cameras and microphones in the courtoom, going so far as to say she would convey her positive experiences to her court colleagues. Sotomayor said, "I have had positive experiences with cameras. When I have been asked to join experiments of using cameras in the courtroom, I have participated. I have volunteered."

But in a recent appearance in New York, Sotomayor appeared to reverse course, saying “I think the process could be more misleading than helpful,” she said. “It's like reading tea leaves. I think if people analyzed it, it is true that in almost every argument you can find a hint of what every judge would rule. But most justices are actually probing all the arguments."

RTDNA, which has long backed visual and audio coverage of court proceedings at all levels, has written a letter to Justice Sotomayor, pointing out the value of allowing the public to see the judicial branch of government in action, and asking her to reconsider her current position:

The Honorable Sonia Sotomayor
Associate Justice
Supreme Court of the United States
Washington, DC 20543

Dear Justice Sotomayor,

As Executive Director of the Radio Television Digital News Association (RTDNA), I read with disappointment recent reports that you have reversed your position concerning electronic coverage of Supreme Court proceedings. Our members listened with particular interest during your confirmation hearings when you responded to questions concerning cameras in the courtroom, recounting your positive experiences and suggesting that you would relay those positive experiences to your colleagues on the Supreme Court. Our members across the country have had the same positive experiences where the public is given meaningful access to an overwhelming number of state courts through audiovisual coverage.

RTDNA continues to believe that the public should be able to see first-hand the arguments made before the U.S. Supreme Court, many of which involve profound social, political and legal issues. Chief Justice Rehnquist recognized the merits of allowing the citizenry to witness the events taking place inside the Court when, in response to requests from RTNDA and others, he released audiotapes of the oral arguments in Bush vs. Gore. The Chief Justice later reported that he was pleased with the reception the broadcast of the Court's audiotapes had gotten, and subsequently made recordings of select cases available.

With all due respect, RTDNA finds the suggestion that public observance or oral arguments before the court “could be more misleading than helpful” inconsistent with the fundamental tenets of our democracy. Public exposure of the processes of government is always in the public’s best interest. Permitting broadcast of the Supreme Court’s proceedings will further the interest of justice, enhance public understanding of the judicial system and maintain a high level of public confidence in the judiciary.

In the present day, meaningful public access necessarily means televised proceedings. As the Court long has recognized, the physical space limitations of a particular courtroom and geographic and other limitations on the public’s ability to personally attend judicial proceedings validate the media’s claim that it acts as a surrogate for the public in providing access to those proceedings. While both print and electronic media fulfill that important surrogate role, only television has the ability to provide the public with a close visual and aural approximation of actually witnessing judicial proceedings without physical attendance. When electronic coverage is banned, the public is forced to depend on secondhand accounts filtered by the perceptions of reporters, which necessarily limits their understanding of the judicial process.

As you know, numerous studies conducted by state and federal jurisdictions to evaluate the effect of the presence of cameras in courtrooms have demonstrated consistently that televised coverage of court proceedings does not impede the fair administration of justice, does not compromise the dignity of the court and does not impair the orderly conduct of judicial proceedings. In-court audiovisual equipment has become a permanent fixture in most states during the last 25 years. Our members have met with judicial officials in every state and successfully arranged for audiovisual coverage of courtroom proceedings with minimal disruption or intrusion.

RTNDA urges you to reconsider your position, and believes you and your colleagues should provide unlimited seating in our nation’s highest court by permitting audiovisual coverage of its proceedings.

Mike Cavender
Executive Director, RTDNA