Outgoing C-SPAN chief executive Brian Lamb has been politely fighting to get TV cameras into Supreme Court proceedings for nearly a quarter-century. The campaign, says Lamb, generally consists of sending letters — letters requesting quick-release audio tapes and, less frequently, letters pushing for would-be historic video coverage.
A February 1988 letter from Lamb to then-Chief Justice William Rehnquist carries this now-funny appeal:
We are aware, of course, that the Court may someday decide to allow television coverage of its public sessions. If the Court makes the decision to allow televised coverage, C-SPAN will cooperate in any way it can. Further, we now make this commitment to the Court: C-SPAN will make available to our potential audience of 100 million the entirety of every oral argument scheduled by the Court. In short, we will provide the Supreme Court of the United States the same quality and extent of coverage that we now give to the daily debates of the United States Congress.
We believe our public service mission requires as much, and we are pleased to be able to make this promise. We also hope that we will be called upon to fulfill it.
Twenty-four years later, that hope lives at C-SPAN. Though he is soon stepping down as CEO, Lamb guarantees that the entire C-SPAN organization remains dedicated to setting up tripods some day in the high court’s chambers.
Via his extensive correspondence with the court over access, Lamb has developed into a persuasive deflater of all the specious arguments routinely advanced for keeping the court free of video. Here, Lamb takes a few whacks at those arguments:
TV broadcasts would dice oral arguments into snippets that would lead to a misunderstanding of the court’s work.
Lamb: Well, newspapers dice the oral arguments, too. “If the openness applies to print, why shouldn’t it apply to television?” asks Lamb.
Lawyers and justices will play to the cameras.
Lamb: “The people that have the most to lose by playing to the cameras are the attorneys, because if they play to the cameras and grandstand, that will have an impact” on their cases. “The people that have the least to lose by playing to the cameras are the Supreme Court justices. They have a job for life.”
Cameras will politicize a legal institution.
Lamb: “They won’t polticize the institution any more than it’s politicized,” he says, adding that the decision to grant review of the Affordable Care Act is a colossal political decision. “It’s not more polticization to take it up than it is to televise it.”
Cameras could pose a security issue for justices.
Lamb: “The one that I least respect is the idea that [the justices’] security would be in jeopardy, because their pictures are in the newspaper all the time, so that argument doesn’t have much weight.”