Magazine article The News Media and the Law (Online)

Holding out against Cameras at the High Court

Magazine article The News Media and the Law (Online)

Holding out against Cameras at the High Court

Article excerpt

It was pouring rain the last day the Supreme Court heard oral argument this spring, but that didn't stop James Armstrong from waiting in a line more than 50-yards long to try to get a seat in the courtroom.

He wanted to see the case, a patent dispute, but braving the elements was the only way to do so because the Supreme Court does not televise oral arguments.

Umbrella in hand and in town from California, Armstrong questioned this policy.

"Justice should be done in the open," he said.

As other courts have increasingly let in cameras, open-government advocates have heightened calls for the Supreme Court to do so too. The justices, however, remain opposed to the idea.

When a group of media and legal organizations known as the Coalition for Court Transparency petitioned Chief Justice John Roberts in March to start televising arguments, the Court's press office sent a curt reply: "There are no plans to change the Court's current practices." (The Reporters Committee is a member of the coalition.)

Over the years, justices have given many reasons for banning cameras. Among them: the Court needs to preserve its tradition; people will not understand the function of oral arguments; the media will use embarrassing sound bites; and cameras will encourage showboating.

But many Supreme Court reporters and lawyers who study the topic say these justifications are flimsy at best. The benefits of broadcasting arguments, they say, far outweigh the risks.

"There's a real hunger out there from people to know more about the Supreme Court and the justices," said Ariane de Vogue, Supreme Court correspondent for ABC News. "I think it would be a marvelous educational opportunity."

Cameras not allowed

In addition to not permitting cameras, the Court waits until the Friday after each argument to release audio recordings. Before 2010, it only provided audio from a given term's hearings at the start of the next term. The Court has made exceptions and released same-day audio for about 25 high-profile cases since 2000, but has provided that service far less frequently since the 2010 rule change.

Audio recordings of opinion announcements are not available until the fall after cases are decided, a policy that famously contributed to some news outlets initially misreporting the healthcare rulings in 2012.

Though anyone can get same-day written transcripts of oral arguments and opinion announcements, the delay in releasing audio recordings and the failure to release video is out-of-sync with the realities of the media industry.

"If the news happens on Wednesday, you want to hear [the justices] on Wednesday," de Vogue said.

De Vogue said that on the rare days that the Court provided same-day audio, she used clips in her television reports and got positive feedback from viewers.

"I think people really like to hear the voices of the justices," she said.

An institution steeped in tradition

The Supreme Court's camera policy is somewhat of an anomaly. Every state supreme court allows cameras, and so do the highest courts in Canada, the United Kingdom and Australia. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit began live streaming oral arguments this winter. In 2010, about 15 federal district courts began videotaping proceedings through a pilot program launched by the Judicial Conference, which oversees the federal judiciary except for the Supreme Court. CSPAN has long televised Congressional hearings.

The Supreme Court, meanwhile, gives lawyers who argue there a quill pen and still uses elevator operators in its building, said Jerry Goldman, director of the Oyez Project at Chicago-Kent College of Law at the Illinois Institute of Technology.

"It's just uncomfortable with change," said Goldman, whose website catalogs oral argument audio. "They're always in the caboose."

Sonja West, a media law professor at the University of Georgia School of Law, explained that the justices may be so reluctant to lift the camera ban because they fear breaking a system that they see as working well. …

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