In denying transparency, the Supreme Court sends a pretentious message that the ‘public isn’t smart enough’ and that Americans don’t deserve to see how our highest court operates. Just last month, Justice Sotomayor said “very few of them (the public) understand what the process is.” That should be the basis of a claim for cameras in the court – not an argument against transparency.
The justices need to realize that their role in our democracy and the legitimacy of their institution and rulings are threatened by their lack of transparency through the shunning of cameras.
Allowing cameras in the courtroom goes beyond public interest: it’s about the Supreme Court’s self-interest.
The Justices do not have a binary choice between “coverage” and “no coverage.” Yes, the release of same-day audio recording permits us sound and not sight. But the real issue isn’t about visuals – it’s about a lack of transparency and openness.
The public wants to see the serious, deliberative work the Supreme Court does. And voters need to be reassured that the court is not a bunch of clowns (or rather, political animals) like Congress. The growing perception that the Supreme Court is a political body is dangerous to their reputation and legitimacy.
To that end, ‘job performance’ ratings for the high court are dismal. In 2010 and 2011, just 3 percent of voters said the Supreme Court is doing an “excellent job.” One year ago, 8 percent of voters said they “strongly approve” of “the way the Supreme Court does its job.” And less than two months ago, the number of voters who “strongly approve” of “the job the court is doing” slipped to 5 percent.
The attitude against cameras is an attempt to pretend that coverage doesn’t exist. But coverage does exist and the way things stand today, the Supreme Court is defined solely by others. By outsourcing control over their reputation, the role of the court is left entirely in the interpretive (and often distortive) hands of the Congress, the president, and the media.
It is fully understandable that justices are concerned that televised coverage could result in out-of-context snippets on YouTube or comedy shows. But they must accept the reality that they exist in a televised world. It is impossible for them to restrict coverage (or mockery) of the high court on The Colbert Report or Saturday Night Live. But the justices do have a route by which they can offer the public a more accurate understanding of what they do.
Cameras permit the court the respect it deserves, which is precisely why the highest courts in most U.S. states and many other countries, including Britain and Canada, have embraced televised sessions. Cameras are the only trustworthy witness the justices have to demonstrate that they take their job seriously and that they are not partisan or gridlocked. In fact, cameras would likely help the public realize that the Supreme Court functions a degree better than most other government institutions.
Given the distressingly low public regard for the court, the fact that the institution does exist in the realm of television, and most of all, that they have outsourced control over their own reputation, the Supreme Court is in worse shape ignoring TV than they could ever be if they embraced it.
Ultimately, cameras in the Supreme Court are not for our sake: it’s for theirs.
Green and Rosenblatt, from Penn Schoen Berland, a research-based strategic consulting firm, have polled often on institutional issues concerning the Supreme Court.