The U.S. Supreme Court relented last week-if only slightly-in its long-standing antipathy to electronic media inside its courtroom and provided the media with an audiotape of Friday's historic arguments on Florida's presidential balloting.
Typically, the court offers a limited release of the tapes a few hours after hearings, but only to allow reporters to check their quotes, according to C-SPAN-which has been trying for years to overcome the court's opposition to cameras in the court. Tapes of Supreme Court arguments are not generally available until they are archived, typically weeks after arguments.
The arguments ended at about 11:30 Friday morning, and within 15 minutes, the tape was running from ABC's pool feed over C-SPAN, CNN, Fox News, NBC, ABC, CBS, MSNBC and CNBC. CNN and the NBC channels provided an ongoing transcript, and each network provided visuals of the justices-sometimes highlighting the specific justice or attorney speaking. ABC, NBC and CBS had all broken into regular programming by late morning for argument coverage, and began airing all or part of the tape.
The unprecedented High Court decision to provide the tape came after repeated requests from media-including CNN, Court TV, C-SPAN, the Radio-Television News Directors Association (RTNDA) and the Society of Professional Journalists. But the court-which offered only an expedited transcript-rejected live video or audio coverage of the arguments and rebuffed a History Channel request to preserve the arguments on video for later documentary use.
RTNDA President Barbara Cochran called the expedited tape "a chink in the wall. It's an important first step."
Following the quick rejection of C-SPAN's initial request, RTNDA had hand-delivered letters to all nine members of the court, asking them to reconsider their decision and at least make audio available.
The appeal to the individual justices followed Chief Justice Rehnquist's written remark to C-SPAN head Brian Lamb that "a majority of the Court remains of the view that we should adhere to our present practice of allowing public attendance and print media coverage of argument sessions, but not allow camera or audio coverage."
That indicated, RTNDA's Cochran said, that there was a minority favoring the cameras. In a follow-up letter to Rehnquist, Bruce Collins, C-SPAN vice president and general counsel, noted that "maybe one of these days, the minority in favor of a televised Supreme Court will become a majority."
Collins continued, "It is difficult to conceive of any other oral argument before the Court more deserving of the largest possible audience than this one. We continue to believe that C-SPAN's trademark gavel-to-gavel coverage would have been enormously informative and would have helped Americans of all political persuasions to understand the Supreme Court's role in this uncertain process, and perhaps even to accept the eventual outcome of the election, whatever it may be."
Historically, opposition to cameras and microphones was based in large part on the cumbersome equipment and fear of the media-inspired chaos that emerged in some cases covered by newsreel and radio.
Many legal scholars agree that whatever progress had been made toward electronic coverage of federal courts by cameras-in-court advocates was largely negated by the mid-1990s due to the chaotic atmosphere surrounding numerous legal proceedings, including Supreme Court confirmation hearings for Robert Bork and Clarence Thomas and, most notably, the O.J. Simpson murder trial. The chaos, however, camera-advocates note, came outside the courtroom and was not related to cameras inside.
If federal courts in general and the Supreme Court in particular have been least receptive to cameras in court, Florida courts-where the case originated and where court proceedings have been televised for 20 years-have been the most accepting. Florida's open-door policy to cameras has allowed much of this remarkable election story to play out live before the public.
In a recent interview with a Canadian lawyers' publication, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said that, while she has no particular objections to televising trials, she respects the wishes of her colleagues who oppose it.
Justice David Souter-who experienced televised trials as a judge in New Hampshire-said, however, that cameras would have to "roll [into the courtroom] over my dead body." Justice Anthony Kennedy has stated that "we are not part of a national entertainment network."