A privileged few

A group of interested organizations, including the Reporters Committee For Freedom of the Press, the American Society of Newspaper Editors, the National Association of Broadcasters, the Alliance For Justice and others today have called for permitting television cameras in the Supreme Court.

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This new Coalition for Court Transparency referred to those few people who are able to be present in the limited seats at the high court "the privileged few." I see the justices themselves as an arrogantly self-claimed “privileged few" who alone among government agencies deny the public the ability to view their work. As a member of the Supreme Court bar, I can go to any argument or decision day and observe American history happen. So can a few hundred citizens who stand in line for the few seats parceled out. Why just us? Is there a good reason?

The newly formed coalition points out that some lower federal courts and most state courts do permit televising of arguments, and that only the United States Supreme Court has refused requests for the same transparency.

The court’s rationale is that televising its open hearings would interfere with the decorum of the court and inspire histrionics, arguments which have been proven wrong in all courts that have experimented with the practice and since adopted it.

In fact, studies have shown that televising arguments is a powerful way to inform the public about a court’s serious treatment of justice through presentation of the great issues of our times. Yet Supreme Court justices have maintained television cameras will not be let in. "Over my dead body", one retired justice claimed. Another said he didn’t want to be recognized in the supermarket, an outrageous position for someone in a role of public responsibility.

Indeed, the precedent for the legality of television in courts comes from the very Supreme Court that outlaws it for itself. The court ruled in Chandler v. Florida in 1981 that such coverage does not cause unconstitutional prejudice to litigants in ruling that the state practice should be allowed.

States are the laboratories of social change in our federal system, the court noted. Since that case decades ago, most state courts have opened their proceedings to television coverage, and the skies have not fallen. Most things viewed are better, as a rule, than done in secret (surely government proceedings). The Supreme Court’s present practice gives the phrase “may it please the court” a bad name. 

I will write again about this subject as the events generated by the new coalition happen.

Goldfarb is an attorney, author and literary agent based in Washington, D.C., and Miami. He is the author of TV or Not TV: Television, Justice, and the Courts. Contact him at rlglawlit@gmail.com.