Federal Courts and Nominations

Editorial: Most Americans missing out on court experience

It’s time to allow cameras in all courtrooms, including the nation’s highest.


Judith E. Schaeffer, vice president of the Constitutional Accountability Center, a think tank and law firm in Washington, D.C., thinks Hoosier native John Roberts should take a lesson from the Indiana Supreme Court and apply it to the U.S. Supreme Court that he is chief justice of.


Any Hoosier who wants to hear the state high court’s oral arguments can do so live just by clicking into a webcast, she writes in the Indianapolis Star. But “most Americans are unable to see critical cases argued before the Supreme Court, unable to listen to the back-and-forth between the Justices and counsel …”


The simple difference is that the state Supreme Court allows cameras in its chambers, and the U.S. Supreme Court does not. So there are no video recordings, live or otherwise. The court does not even allow live audio broadcasts of oral arguments, although they are broadcast live into a separate room for an elite group – lawyers who belong to the Supreme Court Bar.


If Americans want to see the workings of the Supreme Court for themselves, “they have to travel to Washington, D.C. and wait in line at the courthouse, hoping they have arrived early enough to secure one of the limited number of seats in the courtroom that are made available to the public. For cases in which there is broad public interest, arriving early enough can require getting in line very early in the morning, or in the middle of the night, or sometimes even days in advance.”


That means most Americans never have the chance to see and hear for themselves the process that creates the rules we all have to live by and defines the very rights that govern our experience as citizens. Laws come and go, and sometimes they evolve. A decision by the Supreme Court is the closest thing we have to edicts set in stone. And we have to depend on analysis by “experts,” many of them with definite agendas, to understand how the decision was made.


Schaeffer doesn’t get into it, but the State Supreme Court could learn that same lesson and let lower courts install cameras as well. Our system of government was meant to be a very public enterprise, proceedings and processes open to all. That meant one thing at the time of our founding. In today’s world of instant communications and universal access, it means something else entirely.

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