The court’s decision to conduct its business during the pandemic by teleconference is not that much of a surprise because so many other organizations have done the same. The remarkable development is the justices’ unexpected step of live coverage. Our network, C-SPAN, has long argued for greater public accessibility to the court and welcomes this development. It has been a long time coming.
By the mid-’80s, C-SPAN was well known for its signature gavel-to-gavel coverage of the House, the Senate and the presidency. In 1988, we made our first formal request to then-Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist for camera access to the court’s oral arguments. Later, we teamed up with other TV news networks in making joint overtures to the court to let cameras in, even if to cover only in-chamber ceremonies, such as the swearing in of a new justice.
Rehnquist agreed to let a coalition of more than 15 news organizations, including C-SPAN, conduct a demonstration in the chamber of how a two-camera setup could unobtrusively provide full coverage of oral arguments. Three justices, including the chief, sat at the bench while a lawyer for our media group took questions from the justices about the technology — just like an oral argument. We thought the demonstration went very well. Then, nothing.
So we shifted our attention to the lower federal courts. In 1991, at the urging of our media group, Rehnquist approved a four-year experiment with televised federal trial and appeals courts. Our thinking was that if the lower courts accepted camera coverage, it would become easier for the Supreme Court to do so. Despite a report at the end of the experiment that the broadcasts did not interfere with the administration of justice and even had public benefits, it was as if the Supreme Court had put it in the circular file. Again, nothing happened.
Meanwhile, federal court rules changed so that several of them, in particular the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd and 9th circuits, chose to continue camera coverage, without incident. Over the years, several members of Congress, notably Sens. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.), Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) and Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.), helped champion the presence of cameras in the federal courts.
A breakthrough of sorts occurred in late November 2000, when it became clear, unexpectedly, that the presidential election could be determined by the Supreme Court. C-SPAN promptly hand-delivered a letter to Rehnquist requesting that, given the extraordinary level of public interest in the Bush v. Gore case, our cameras be allowed in to provide live coverage. Instead, the chief justice announced the court would release an audio recording of the oral argument shortly after it was completed. Even though it wasn’t camera access, it nevertheless marked a major departure for the court: That same day, a highly interested national audience was able to watch C-SPAN and other news outlets air — with photos of the lawyers, justices and explanatory graphics — the momentous argument that had happened in the chamber only a few hours earlier.
In the years since, the Roberts Court has continued to release same-day audio of some high-profile cases, but only when requested by C-SPAN or other news organizations. Apparently, the court tired of making these decisions on a case-by-case basis, so it decided to release the audio of all its arguments every Friday. Delayed release was an unsatisfying compromise for journalists, but it was yet another small step toward broader access by the public to the Supreme Court.
Now, the courtis giving the public live access to its arguments for the month of May. All of them will air live across C-SPAN’s platforms. Among the 10 cases are three on May 12 regarding the release of President Trump’s tax records, which will certainly heighten the public’s interest in the court’s broadcasting experiment. Having been given live access to the court in the spring, the public and the news media would certainly expect to have it in the fall when a new term begins. The court’s move toward greater transparency should continue after the pandemic abates — and once the justices have become comfortable with live access, adding video coverage is the next logical step.