Why is the US Supreme Court afraid of TV Cameras?

05 April 2012
Published in Blog

The United States Supreme Court - the highest court in the land - one of the most powerful institutions in the world, is afraid of something most of us would relish: Being on television.

The United States Supreme Court recently completed hearings on the question of whether the nation’s healthcare law--unaffectionately referred to as Obamacare--is constitutional. This is clearly one of the most important Supreme Court decisions since the Court’s ruling concerning the 2000 presidential election in the case of Bush vs. Gore. (In case you forgot, Bush won that one.)

So how many TV cameras were allowed in the Supreme Court to capture the lawyer’s arguments in this historic case? Two? Three? One? Nope, the answer is zero.

The US Supreme Court denied the medias’ request to allow cameras to film the oral arguments in this case--a case which will not only impact millions of Americans, but will also likely have a tremendous impact on this November’s presidential election.

It’s simply mind boggling that TV cameras are not permitted to televise this case yet we are able to watch live coverage of Lindsey Lohan’s probation hearings. (All of them.) We were even able to watch Snookie’s hearings in the Seaside Heights municipal court as she plead guilty to charges arising from a drunken escapade on the beaches of the Jersey shore.

Television cameras are allowed in the trial courts in 36 of our States and even more on the appellate level. Some State Supreme Courts like New Jersey, Texas and Utah, to name a few, even offer live web streaming of the lawyers’ oral arguments and archive them for years on their respective websites.

But the US Supreme Court – the highest court in the land – would rather work behind a cloak of secrecy than allow us to see their proceedings. While we can listen to audio recordings of the court proceedings the day after the hearings, we are precluded from watching the hearings live. In fact, only about 250 members of the public are allowed into the court to observe the arguments together with a handful of members of the media.

Why don’t they allow TV cameras? One argument is that there is a fear that lawyers or justices will “showboat” for the cameras- as if a lawyer will open his/her argument with: “Before I talk about the healthcare law, I’d first like to sing a song from ‘Les Miserables.’”

As a former lawyer, I can assure you that a lawyer would not risk embarrassing themselves, undermining their case before the US Supreme Court, and subjecting themselves to a lawsuit for malpractice by turning their oral argument into an audition for “America’s Got Talent.”

The other argument raised in opposition to the cameras is that the clips will be taken out of context. That is always a concern, but if that argument were followed, it could be used to ban television cameras from televising any government functions, from US Congress to municipal court trials.

The US Supreme Court should have allowed cameras to cover the health care arguments. First, it would have given all of us more information about the legal issues surrounding the health care law. I, for one, could use some more facts on this law and I think most of us could as well.

Second, it would increase the public’s confidence in this politically charged case. We would have been able to watch the arguments and discuss the issues ensuring full transparency.

As Illinois Chief Justice Thomas Kilbride stated in January as the Illinois Supreme Court finally agreed to allow TV cameras into that court: "The idea behind this is simple. We need to have the courts be more open. By having the public keeping an eye on what is going on in the courtroom, it can act as a check in the balance of power.”

If there ever was a case for the US Supreme Court to allow TV cameras, it was this one.  But now if you want to watch judge discuss important issues, you are stuck with the judges on “American Idol.”