Federal Courts and Nominations

Attorney: Time is right for cameras in U.S. Supreme Court courtroom

Following a term dominated by hot-button issues such as marriage equality and voting rights, the U.S. Supreme Court is once again off to a fast start. Chief Justice John Roberts and his colleagues have already heard important arguments on campaign finance, public prayer and affirmative action. There’s also a good chance that they’ll add a blockbuster case to their docket with roots in Oklahoma — a challenge to a key provision of Obamacare brought by the Oklahoma City-based chain Hobby Lobby.


And yet, even as the court addresses some of the most important issues of the day, it remains the least transparent branch of government. Perhaps nowhere is this more evident than in its long-standing policy prohibiting cameras.


Despite great public interest, the court restricts live access to its arguments to those actually able to secure one of a few hundred seats in its courtroom. For the average Oklahoman, this also means an expensive trip to the nation’s capital — all for a chance to see the justices do the people’s business. Everyone else must wait for the court to release audio of its arguments — in a select few cases, a few hours later; in all others, on the following Friday. No one outside the courtroom ever gets to actually see the advocates make their case or the justices probe the advocates’ arguments.


When pressed on the issue, the justices repeat the same arguments. Their questions and comments will be taken out of context. Lawyers — or, worse, their fellow justices — will play to the cameras. They’ll be recognized at their local Whole Foods. None of these arguments are persuasive.


The justices’ questions and comments are already taken out of context by reporters, columnists and late-night comedians alike — cameras or no cameras. Grandstanding lawyers — and even justices — are sure to be greeted by a hostile bench, disdainful colleagues and/or unhappy clients. Public attention is the price one pays for serving the public in such a high-profile position.


Even if the justices remain reluctant to lift their ban on cameras, there’s no reason for them to block a live audio feed of their oral arguments. They already provide one for members of the Supreme Court Bar in the court’s “Lawyers’ Lounge.” Why not provide that same service to everyone else?


Last month, Americans were treated to an extended (and very public) seminar on government dysfunction. With trust in government hitting an all-time low and even the Supreme Court’s approval rating flagging, now is the time for the court to open up its courtroom to cameras. As someone who has attended multiple arguments, I have little doubt that the American people, regardless of party or ideology, would be heartened by what they’d see: some of the brightest minds in the country wrestling with some of our knottiest legal issues.


What do the justices have to hide?


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