05 March 2013


When I was a biology and math teacher in suburban Philadelphia in the early 1990s, my best friend among the faculty taught classes in history and government.  We both organized field trips for our students, to illustrate and bring to life the material being taught.  Tony often requested me as the second adult on his trips, which I was more than happy to oblige.

One such excursion took us to Washington, DC.  We visited the Lincoln Memorial and the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, then walked the length of the National Mall, past the Washington Monument and into the rotunda separating the House and Senate chambers.  Our timing was perfect ~ Tony had scheduled us to sit in on a U.S. Supreme Court session, just across the street.

Simply waiting on the wide marble steps in front of the temple-like Supreme Court building was impressive.  When our time came, we filed in and quietly took seats in the courtroom (see image above) while the justices were in recess.  Shortly they entered and took their seats, and the case before them resumed.

I've sat in civil and criminal courts before, but they didn't approach the feeling of solemnity and weighty thought that permeates the Supreme Court.  The students were impressed.

For years I've followed the Court, both the cases it considers and the votes of individual justices.  Thus it was with some interest that I scanned a NYTimes article in which the issue of video coverage of Supreme Court arguments was discussed.  One expects that the more conservative justices would oppose live coverage, but surprisingly, two of the more liberal justices also oppose (a reversal from their positions during confirmation hearings).

The article explains ~ "In the United States, cameras are commonplace in state trial and appeals courts, and the lower federal courts have experimented with them.  Only in the Supreme Court is there categorical resistance."

Concerns about camera presence seem to take two forms ~

  • Viewers won't understand what is going on ~ the nuances of questions and answers, the rules of evidence, the relevance of case law.  Thus viewers might become bored, or might form mistaken impressions on what is transpiring in court.
  • Justices and attorneys might be tempted to grandstand, playing to the cameras rather than soberly focusing on the essential matter at hand.
To the first objection, I say nonsense.  Any citizen has the right to observe and understand the workings of government, be they executive, legislative, or judicial.  To suggest that those who are not attorneys will be unable to follow or make sense of the proceedings is condescending to the intelligence of those who take an interest in the Court.  It also overlooks the sterling educational value of watching court in session over time, thus learning some of the ins and outs of protocol, rules of evidence, and the relevance of arguments.

To the second objection, I say nonsense.  Justices and attorneys are professionals, steeped in the learning and structure of the law.  Anyone who is so immature (or so insecure in the validity of their arguments) that they would set aside decorum and play to the audience, should not be a justice or an attorney in the first place.  This isn't grade school.

I'm not alone in my perceptions.  The Supreme Court of the United Kingdom and the Supreme Court of Canada both allow cameras in the courtroom, and in Canada they also allow live streaming over the Internet.  Their experience has been positive.  Even the UK and Canadian justices who were initially opposed, have come around to support video coverage.  The only exception appears to be criminal trials before juries ~ the concern being that testifying witnesses might be intimidated if vested interests outside the courtroom knew the content of their testimony.

Check out the article for further details.  And here is an interview Charlie Rose conducted with Justice Sonia Sotomayor, in which the topic of cameras in court comes up.

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