There are TV cameras in numerous state courts and even in some federal appeals courts, but federal district courts remain off limits. The same goes for the Supreme Court. With apologies to the pastel-toting courtroom artists of the nation, common sense says that ought to change.
The House of Representatives last week approved a bill allowing cameras in federal criminal trials and the Supreme Court, at the discretion of the judges. It would allow witnesses and jurors to ask that their faces be obscured and would direct the Judicial Conference to draw up guidelines to help decide when and how to televise. The lawmakers are being wisely cautious.
With those safeguards in place, the arguments against coverage should be erased. Although she’s soon leaving the court, Justice Sandra Day O’Connor made the argument for cameras last week when talking about a trial halfway around the world.
She said there was a case of election fraud that was tried in the Ukraine and the trial was televised. When people were able to see how the decision was made, they were satisfied that justice had been served. A new election was conducted without bloodshed, she said, in an area where previously, that would not necessarily have been the case.
She called it a turning point for an emerging democracy. Likewise, cameras in the Supreme Court could be a turning point for this veteran democratic nation as well.
To his credit, new Chief Justice John Roberts has said he is open to considering the issue. He should look at the evidence. As far we as know, none of the hundreds of trial verdicts that have been televised has ever been reversed because television was there to cover them.
If trials are public, then cameras only make them more so, by removing the artificial limit on the number of seats in a courtroom. There will be massive publicity for high-profile trials whether or not there are cameras in the courtroom. The difference is that cameras will allow more of the public access to those decisions. Court TV CEO Henry Schleiff argues correctly that televised trials should give us a greater understanding of, and thus more confidence in, the system. And if it doesn’t, that is something we should know as well.
What could be more instructive than the Supreme Court’s oral argument on cases that affect the lives of millions? C-SPAN’s Brian Lamb has pledged to carry them in full. As Radio-Television News Directors Association President Barbara Cochran pointed out at a Capitol Hill hearing, why should the nominees to the Supreme Court be all over television during the vetting process, only to disappear into their ivory tower once they get confirmed? They should be impartial, yes. Invisible, no.