WHEN A federal judge halted President Trump’s immigration executive order last Friday, the news was at first little more than a terse line on phone screens and cable-news chyrons, implying a thousand unanswered questions: What holes did the judge find in the Trump administration’s arguments? To what degree was the decision based on the Constitution’s guarantee of due process or of equal protection? On the separation of church and state? Why did District Court Judge James L. Robart go further than other federal judges had before him in stopping the executive order’s phase-in?
The judge’s written ruling was not very illuminating. But Mr. Robart sits in a judicial district that has been experimenting with cameras in the federal courtroom, and every minute of the oral arguments that led to his decision was recorded and released promptly after he ruled. Turns out Mr. Robart spent a great deal of time on equal-protection questions. He also appeared to be particularly skeptical that Mr. Trump’s broad travel restrictions were rationally related to stopping terrorism, noting that he found little evidence that people who have been allowed into the United States from the countries singled out in the executive order pose a unique threat.
A few days later, lawyers appeared before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit, arguing the same case up the appeals chain. Though those arguments were conducted via teleconference, the audio was live-streamed online on Tuesday. Interested parties — and everyone with a minute to spare and a stake in the country should have been interested — could listen as the lawyers tangled over some of the most high-minded concepts underpinning American freedom in one of the most consequential cases any judge will hear this year.
This is not to say that the proceedings felt like scripted high drama. To those worried that cameras or microphones in the courtroom would lead to grandstanding and theatrics, Mr. Robart’s hearing should have been a comfort. It was a plodding hour of court administrative business, technical questions and statutory references. The judge rarely acknowledged the cameras — at one point, he explained some legal terminology “for the audience out there” — and was otherwise businesslike.
To say the federal judiciary has moved toward 21st-century transparency at a snail’s pace would be an insult to snails. Bringing cameras into the courtroom has been formally discussed for three decades now. The federal judiciary has conducted pilot after pilot and still is not satisfied that judges and lawyers can behave professionally with the cameras on. The Supreme Court keeps its proceedings strictly hidden from video recordings, as do many others. There are some cases in which cameras should be turned off — in criminal proceedings in which witnesses would be uncomfortable, for example. But considerations such as those should not stop courts of appeals or courts considering civil cases from opening themselves to public view.
Its role of administering justice and interpreting the law makes the judicial branch different from the political branches, but no less important to Americans who deserve to see — literally — how their government functions.