From Justices, Static on Televising Proceedings

"It will misinform the public rather than inform the public to have our proceedings televised," Justice Antonin Scalia said on C-SPAN. (By Evan Vucci -- Associated Press)
By Charles Lane
Monday, May 2, 2005

A leading member of the Supreme Court has splashed some fresh cold water on whatever hopes court buffs might still have that the justices will soon permit cameras in their courtroom.

Live gavel-to-gavel coverage is old hat in both houses of Congress. But the court, while it has recently released same-day audio recordings in a few high-profile cases, still adheres to a strict no-video policy for its oral arguments. There is not even an exception for archival footage of the kind that might someday show up on the History Channel.

And Justice Antonin Scalia chose the ironic venue of a televised appearance to reiterate his objections.

Speaking during a C-SPAN-covered "Constitutional Conversation" with Justices Sandra Day O'Connor and Stephen G. Breyer on April 21, Scalia declared that the media simply cannot be depended upon to present an accurate view of the court's proceedings.

"I wouldn't mind having the proceedings of the court, not just audioed, but televised, if I thought it would only go out on a channel that everyone would watch gavel to gavel," Scalia said. "But if you send it out on C-SPAN, what will happen is for every one person who sees it on C-SPAN gavel to gavel so they can really understand what the court is about, what the whole process is, 10,000 will see 15-second takeouts on the network news, which, I guarantee you, will be uncharacteristic of what the court does. So I have come to the conclusion that it will misinform the public rather than inform the public to have our proceedings televised."

The event at the National Archives was sponsored by the archives, the Aspen Institute and the National Constitution Center, of which Scalia, O'Connor and Breyer are advisory board members. It was moderated by Tim Russert of NBC News.

Pressing the justice, Russert asked: "If you had Supreme Court TV covering gavel to gavel, as you called it, that you would find acceptable, but you're afraid it would be edited improperly?"

"With no takeouts," Scalia, who probably meant to say "outtakes," responded to the "Meet the Press" host. "I don't know improperly -- not improperly for what the networks do. It's, you know, news, entertainment and whatever -- they want 'man bites dog' stories. They don't want people to watch what the Supreme Court does over the course of a whole hour of argument. People aren't going to do that."

O'Connor concurred with Scalia's opinion, telling Russert, "I'm not particularly interested in the television process right now."

Only Breyer seemed less than unequivocally opposed to TV.

"Each of us is a trustee of an institution that means a lot to the American people and to the country, and that it holds the place that it does hold in the heart of Americans is not something we personally have brought about," he said. "We've inherited it. Naturally, each of us is incredibly cautious about any change that might, inadvertently or advertently or without fault or whatever, make a negative difference to that institution. Therefore, when you say you start with the audio and see how it goes and see what happens and learn from experience and be very, very cautious, I think that would reflect my point of view."

LEGAL EAGLES? When last we checked on the wildlife situation at the Supreme Court, back in January 2002, police officers were searching the building unsuccessfully for a fox that had slipped into the court through a basement parking garage. Despite help from a local fox-hunting club and its hounds, the police never caught the vulpine intruder.

Now, however, the court is under aerial invasion. A bat was spotted flying around inside not long ago. The latest flap involves the unauthorized construction of eight nests by birds under the eaves of a temporary building occupied by the court's public information office and members of the press corps. The court is undergoing a five-year renovation project.

Constructed from twigs and bits of tissue paper, the nests appear to be the work of one or more robins ( Turdus migratorius ) that have been seen fluttering near the structures.

Potentially pesky though the nests might be, the court has decided not to remove them, at least through this breeding cycle.

"We didn't want to disturb the natural course of events," court spokeswoman Kathy Arberg said. No word on whether the new bird population, like the court itself, is split between right- and left-wingers.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company