July 15, 2020 update: RTDNA has joined 15 press freedom groups in sending a letter to Chief Justice John Roberts requesting that live audio streaming of oral arguments continue for the next court term.
COVID-19 has created a situation desperate enough for the U.S. Supreme Court finally to open its oral arguments to live broadcast.
In the eyes of the court, this is an extreme measure. However, it is a measure RTDNA and journalists at large have long been advocating for in the fight for a more informed public.
I would like to take a moment and acknowledge how epic this change is.
This week, for the first time in history, people can finally hear live and in real time oral arguments before the highest court in our land. It was a move born out of necessity, an effort to keep the court’s business moving without risking the justices’ or other participants’ health. That said, this move may not have happened were it not for the decades of advocacy from RTDNA and other pro-transparency groups.
In November 2000, your association convinced the court to abandon longtime precedent and open the proceedings to the public by releasing, for the first time ever, same-day audio recordings of oral arguments in the pivotal Bush v. Palm Beach County Canvassing Board case. The process worked so well that the court continues the practice of releasing same-day audio to the public in select landmark cases.
Now that we are proving that live coverage of Supreme Court proceedings can work and not disrupt or otherwise dilute the solemnity of a high court hearing, it’s time to reinvigorate our push for the logical next step in this process – live video coverage.
It has been a quarter century since the O.J. Simpson trial soured a lot of judges on the concept of broadcasting trials. But jurists, attorneys and journalists learned a number of lessons from that experience, which are still being brought to bear today to ensure live video coverage is a positive, or at least neutral, experience for the judicial system and the public.
We see that in the states that allow cameras in the courts, including, since COVID, live video streams. We have seen it in the small number of federal courts that have experimented with allowing cameras. It is hard to argue, although some stubborn traditionalist judges and legislators still do, that live broadcasts of court proceedings do more harm than good.
It has been more than 100 years since soon-to-become Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis wrote, “Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants; electric light the most efficient policeman.”
Now, as the entire world clamors for disinfectants to protect them from a virus that has been called a “silent killer,” it is long past time for the current justices who followed Brandeis to the nation’s highest court to heed his words. To take his metaphor to heart. To realize even though justice is blind, those whom it affects are not.
To open federal courts, including the United States Supreme Court, not just to live audio coverage, but to live video coverage as well.