Should the Supreme Court allow cameras in court?

Should the Supreme Court allow cameras in court?

by Monica Sanders, December 2009

For years, extensive court coverage was something left to the newspapers. Even then, it was left to the back pages unless they involved major crimes. When court cases made TV, it was usually because they were "sexy," meaning they actually involved sex, scandal or murder. Even then, the coverage took place outside of the courtroom.

That was before the O.J. Simpson trial. Television journalists and their viewers were enthralled from the moment Mr. Simpson hit the freeway in his white Bronco until the jury gave a verdict that people that still has people talking. Along the way, Americans became interested in watching court cases.

Now trial coverage is a regular part of local news programming. Many municipal, and some state courts have opened their doors to television cameras; allowing the public to see the justice system in action. In the last few years, there has been a push for the nation's highest court to do the same.

In fact, at least one high-ranking member of Congress has said it is time for cameras to come to the Supreme Court. Senator Joe Biden believes the court should be open. He is not alone in this view. At one point, Senator Arlen Specter introduced legislation that would allow some Supreme Court proceedings to be televised.

Biden asked Chief Justice Roberts about the issue during his confirmation hearings. At that point, he said he would consider the idea. However, in the July of this year, Roberts was quoted in the San Jose Mercury News and the Associated Press as saying he is not interested in having cameras in the courtroom and may never be. Roberts told a conference from the 9th Circuit of Appeals "All of the justices view themselves as trustees of an extremely valuable institution...We're going to be very careful before we do anything that will have an adverse impact on that."

As with other important decisions, the justices seem to be split on the issue. Late Chief Justice Rehnquist was against them, as is Clarence Thomas and David Souter. Justice Breyer has not come out against them. On the other hand, Samuel Alito has said he would consider them. In his confirmation hearings, Alito reminded Congress that he did vote to allow cameras in his district courtroom.

Those who agree that cameras do not belong in the Supreme Court cast it as an almost sacred institution that could be devalued by the presence of cameras. They frequently bolster their arguments by using the O.J. Simpson trial as an example. According to those critics, the Simpson trial affected both the judge and the attorneys involved in the case. They felt that instead of focusing solely on the case they were trying, the legal teams became overly concerned with playing to the cameras. Viewers tuned in to see Marcia Clark's ever-changing hair, or hear what Johnny Cochran would say.

Proponents of cameras in the courtroom say television viewership of trials is akin to public attendance. Instead of meeting in the town square or courthouse as our forefathers did, modern people watch TV. Steven Brill and the heads of CNN and Court TV have also made this analogy. They say allowing cameras is part of upholding our constitutional right to a "speedy and public trial."

Despite what people on both sides of the debate have to say, whether cameras ever actually make it to the Supreme Court could actually depend on two men: Chief Justice Roberts and Senator Biden. Roberts' comment from the summer could prompt a new push from Biden to create new legislation allowing cameras in federal courts. If the Chief Justice says "no," he could find himself in a face-off with Congress in his second term at the helm of the court.