The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Good on the Supreme Court for keeping live audio. Now it’s time to go further.

The U.S. Supreme Court building. (Elizabeth Frantz for The Washington Post)

As the Supreme Court embarks on a new term Monday, there is at least one development that should be welcomed by observers from all ideological backgrounds. The court announced Wednesday that it will allow the public back into the room for arguments. At the same time, it will maintain its live audio feed, which began during the covid-19 pandemic. Good for the court for embracing transparency and engagement with regular Americans. Now, it’s time to make live broadcasts permanent — and consider going even further with live video.

In 2020, the court closed its doors because of covid-19 restrictions and decided to instead broadcast audio recordings of oral arguments. Though the pandemic was the catalyst for the change, this was a long-overdue move: Numerous federal appeals courts and state Supreme Courts had already adopted live recordings, with great success.

There was resistance from some justices and court watchers, who were concerned that broadcasts would incentivize lawyers and justices to showboat and dramatize proceedings. But live audio has not harmed the quality of arguments during the pandemic — and it has made the judicial process much more accessible to the American public. In the first six months of broadcasts alone, more than 2 million people tuned in to at least one oral argument.

With public confidence in the Supreme Court at historical lows, this sort of engagement is crucial. If Americans feel more informed about jurisprudence, it would improve institutional legitimacy and repair trust — an important matter for the court, as calls for ill-advised reforms such as court-packing gain steam.

In fact, the court should not stop with audio broadcasts. There is no good reason to keep cameras out of courtrooms. When used in state proceedings, even ones that are high-profile and fraught, they have provided enormous clarity and insight into the legal process. Yet the Supreme Court — and most of the federal system — has maintained an archaic ban on cameras, let alone video livestreaming. According to polls, a majority of Americans would like that to change, as would members of Congress from both parties.

In 2021, Sens. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) and Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) introduced legislation to put cameras in the Supreme Court. Mr. Grassley and Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) also introduced a bill to expand video coverage of federal court proceedings. Both bills were approved by the Judiciary Committee last summer but have since stalled. There are reasonable debates over whether Congress should impose this kind of reform on the courts — but there is broad agreement that the change itself would be beneficial.

For centuries, the Supreme Court’s open proceedings were a mystery to all but a few Americans who could attend in person. The court’s recent embrace of audio technology has opened up arguments to millions more, offering the public an invaluable view into how major constitutional questions are resolved. That is an important step forward — but should be the beginning, not the end, of efforts to boost trust and transparency in the system.

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