Supreme Court cameras: More elusive now?

February 2, 2015 08:30

By Mike Cavender, RTDNA Executive Director
It was a bad omen Monday for those of us who long for the day when we have a truly open and transparent Supreme Court.

Two justices, both of whom at one time appeared warm to the idea of televised proceedings, said they are reconsidering their positions. In separate appearances, Justices Elena Kagan and Sonia Sotomayor both said they’re concerned about “grandstanding” during court proceedings. Sotomayor told a Florida audience she was worried that both justices and attorneys might give into “this temptation to use it as a stage rather than a courtroom.” She added that she was getting closer to saying cameras, at least in the Supreme Court, might be a bad idea.

In Chicago, Justice Kagan told an audience they need look no further than Congress and its televised proceedings on C-SPAN to see how cameras can influence debate.  Kagan went on to say that she is “conflicted” over the issue.  But at least she acknowledged there are strong arguments on both sides of the issue. “If you look at different experiences, when cameras come into a place, the nature of a conversation often changes,” Kagan told the University of Chicago’s Institute of Politics.  “Honestly, I don’t think Congress is a great advertisement for this.”

Many might argue that Congress isn’t a great advertisement for much of anything. And equating Congress and the Supreme Court on any level is not being very kind to the latter!

Last month, RTDNA, through the Coalition for Court Transparency, sent a letter to Chief Justice John Roberts urging him to consider opening the Court to cameras during the April arguments on the gay marriage issue. You can read the letter here.

Both Sotomayor and Kagan previously said they had positive experiences with cameras in other courtrooms. During her Senate confirmation hearings in 2009, Sotomayor indicated she might even try to soften the existing opposition to cameras in the Supreme Court. Kagan was on record saying she had more support than opposition to the idea of televised Supreme Court proceedings.

Most every state in the union allows some level of electronic coverage of proceedings in state and/or local courtrooms. Some have more restrictions than others, but all seem to acknowledge the need for the wider access TV cameras can provide.

It is truly unfortunate that in the highest court in the land, where some of the most important and historic cases are heard, we’ve yet to be able to reach that same level of access and transparency.

But RTDNA will continue to fight for that access because we believe that, eventually, the sun will break through, even at 1 First Street, NE, Washington, DC.