Cameras and the high court

Cameras and the high court

April 9th, 2012 in Opinion Times

The period following the U.S. Supreme Court's recent hearings on challenges to the health care law, a law approved by Congress and signed into law by President Barack Obama, is an appropriate time to question the high court's continued refusal to visually share its proceedings with the nation it purports to serve. The court can provide no satisfactory answer to such a query. The current policy is archaic and indefensible. It should be changed.

The court should adopt a policy that provides reasonable and accessible TV coverage of its proceedings. That can be done without harming the operation or dignity of the court -- as long as safeguards are put in place to limit or halt broadcasts of sensitive deliberations. There's ample precedent for such action.

The highest levels of the legislative and executive branches of the federal government already allows public access via cameras in almost everything they undertake. So do an increasing number of state and local governments and courts at a variety of levels. None, it should be noted, have been harmed as a result of the increased public exposure. Now, in fact, many public officials once leery of the public exposure provided by the camera actively court such attention.

The high court justices, for the most part, do not. Occasionally, one of the nine says something that suggests he or she understands the merits of live broadcasts, but it is made clear such that the remark is a personal opinion. As a unit, the justices continue to oppose cameras in court. That supports the long-standing and terribly elitist attitude that the words and actions of judges and lawyers are beyond the ability of ordinary citizens to understand.

Truth is, Americans are extraordinarily interested and quite knowledgeable about the courts, the law and government. Allowing cameras in court would no doubt increase that interest and knowledge and contribute directly to a more informed and involved public.

That's why hearings on a topic as vital to Americans and their future as the new health care law should have been open to all. The best way to provide such exposure is through TV. Indeed, it's the only way. Fewer than 300 seats are available at the U.S. Supreme Court. Americans have a right to see and hear what takes place before the high court. Limited seating and the personal feelings of the justices should not trump that right.

Arguments to the contrary are pretty feeble. Justice Clarence Thomas said recently that the result of allowing TV cameras in his court could be that "tabloid interests in the issue overshadow the substantive nature of the issue." Nonsense. Most Americans are wise enough to separate the important from the inane, especially in matters of personal and national interest.

Rather than remain silent or continue to hide behind tradition, the U.S. Supreme Court should implement rules that allow live video and audio recordings of its proceedings -- whether they are about arcane legal matters or issues of long-lasting vital importance like the new health care law. That would allow all Americans to become more fully informed partners in the work that the justices take up on their behalf.