It is time for cameras in the courtroom

For too long we have allowed the perception that the court is some sort of “judicial priesthood” that deserves to operate outside the view of the public. It is, in fact, the third branch of government and under the Constitution ought to be just as accountable and accessible to the public as the legislative and executive branches.

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Today, the Supreme Court allocates roughly 50 seats for the general public to view open proceedings. 50 seats in a country of 320 million people. Certainly, there was a time in our nation’s history when such a physical limitation on seating was justified, but in today’s digital age, it strains credulity where with a cell phone practically anyone is able to communicate instantaneously or view the floor of Congress or the press room of the White House through live video streaming. There is no reason that open proceedings before the nation’s highest court should not be accessible in a similar fashion. Given the fact that Supreme Court Justices are appointed and for life-tenure one would think that they would want to be accountable in this modest way.

Several Justices already have voiced their support for allowing cameras in the courtroom, and 72 percent of adults from across the political spectrum support it, according to a recent Gallup/USA Today poll. The public understands, and is rightly demanding, the same level of transparency from the Supreme Court that it has from the executive and legislative branches of government. It is essential to ensuring success for the system of checks and balances established by our nation’s founders.

I find it incredulous for some to claim that this proposal will invite mugging for the cameras or sound-bite interpretations of court proceedings. Welcome to the age of modern media. Coverage of the Court already is being distilled into brief blog postings and tweets. And frankly, fear of the possibility that some might play to the cameras is demeaning to the professionalism of the Court’s life-tenured Justices. The Supreme Court, like other American institutions, is operating in a changed society, whether it likes it or not, and the public has the right to hear the rest of the story and judge for themselves what is said before the Court. The Justices may enjoy life-long appointments, yet that doesn’t grant them immunity from accountability for their words and opinions.

Sometimes the argument also is made that such legislation violates separation of powers by having the legislative branch impose a requirement on the judicial branch. The Court cannot claim that it has a right -- a right constitutionally murky at best -- to review and nullify duly passed laws of the legislative branch but is itself immune from accountability, unique among the three branches. That is a specious argument and one that does not pass a thoughtful reading of Constitutional history.

It is long past time for the public to have greater access to its highest court. There is no doubt that the Court’s decision in the health insurance reform case will have a seismic impact on public policy on 20 percent of the entire economy and our politics, and it only highlights the urgency for Congress and the Court to act now to balance the scales of transparency and accountability for all three branches of government.

Rep. Connolly (D-Va.) is chief sponsor, along with Rep. Ted Poe (R-Texas), a former judge, of the Cameras in the Courtroom Act (H.R. 3572).