Back in March — when huge crowds were gathering around the U.S. Supreme Court building for the court's discussion of same-sex marriage — we lamented how the only people who were going to be able to see the court in action were those who could fit within the court's viewing chamber. (The line for those precious few available tickets began days before the hearing.)
If ever there was a time for the court to finally enter the 21st century — or even enter the latter half of the 20th century — it was when millions of people were interested in watching the debate over the constitutionality of California's Proposition 8 and the federal Defense of Marriage Act.
Last month, a panel convened by the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press renewed the call for the justices on the nation's high court to join their counterparts on the state level and finally allow video of their proceedings to be recorded. Held at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., the 90-minute discussion — titled, "Today's Supreme Court: Tradition v. Technology and Transparency" — included judges, attorneys, educators and journalists.
"Without cameras, the United States Supreme Court is missing out on a huge opportunity to foster greater public understanding of our judicial branch. Let's help the public understand instead of keep them in the dark about the operation of the highest appellate court in the jurisdiction," Ohio Supreme Court Chief Justice Maureen O'Connor said.
Unlike the justices in Ohio, Iowa and other states, the Supreme Court justices still seem worried that people will attempt to read even more into their questions — especially their devil's-advocate questions — than intended. They like to see themselves as nonpolitical arbiters of the law who shun the political attention they get regarding controversial decisions. And they fear that having cameras in their courtroom will encourage attorneys — maybe even themselves — to start playing to the camera rather than focusing on the people before them in the courtroom.
And the panelists did their best to undermine those arguments.
"If we care, as I think everyone does in America and each of the justices do, about civic education in the United States, the costs are modest to none and the benefits are a legion and powerful, so it is time for that venerable tradition to come to an end," said Ken Starr, a former solicitor general, judge and current president of Baylor University.
But it's not only the high-profile cases that the justices should open up for further public scrutiny; it's every case that stands to set a new precedent for all other courts in the nation to follow.
That why we continue to join media organizations and other groups across the country to continue to call on the the U.S. Supreme Court to show the lower courts that they have nothing to fear from video coverage. (After all, it's hard to imagine court watchers being able to read anything more into the justices' questions than they already do.)
Iowa City Press-Citizen
Nov. 2, 2013