“ON NOVEMBER 10, 1893 The Washington Post identified an emerging technology that was reshaping American society: Pneumatics!” This is how Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. began his 2014 Year-End Report on the Federal Judiciary, in which he announced a long-overdue move to put court documents online. But he stopped well short of embracing other obvious improvements, such as live video or audio from the Supreme Court chamber. “The courts will always be prudent whenever it comes to embracing the ‘next big thing,’ ” he wrote.
Allow us to reclaim some dignity. Sure, zipping documents around in metal tubes wasn’t the most important communication technology ever created, or even the most important created around that time. But audio and video broadcasting — on television, radio and the Internet — is not the next big thing. It is a long-been thing, an indispensable tool for connecting people with each other — and the government with the people. We’ve thought the Supreme Court should allow cameras in its chamber for a long time. So have many judges who already work with cameras rolling.
The justices consider cases of national importance, the outcomes of which can affect millions of Americans, and they do it with taxpayer money. Yet the court stands out in its refusal to ease access to and understanding of the public proceedings that it conducts. The court doesn’t allow live video broadcasts and only sometimes makes exceptions for audio. Typically, those interested in a full account of the day’s cases must read transcripts posted hours after oral arguments occur or wait for the court to release audiotapes at week’s end.
Critics of putting cameras in courtrooms say that broadcasts would turn otherwise-staid legal proceedings into circuses, with lawyers and judges playing to the television audience rather than seriously sorting out tough legal questions. Yet the justices already keep lawyers under control, constantly cutting them off before they finish their sentences. Really, the justices would have to keep only themselves in check.
Critics also worry about disruptions from the observers in the chamber. But the rare disruptive audience member can be removed easily. And critics fret about the personal security of justices who might become more recognizable. Yet the justices are public figures, whether they like it or not.
There are also risks to keeping things the way they are. Reporters must read from transcripts stripped of crucial cues such as tone of voice and facial expression, which opens a wide opportunity for mistaken or deliberate misinterpretation. That is, if journalists don’t just rely on the snippets that observers in the chamber share on Twitter, which often define the first impressions of what occurred.
One way or another, there will be real-time discussion of major court cases. For the sake of the public’s understanding of the legal process and the integrity of public debate, the court should do all it can to ensure that discussion is well-informed.
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