The people are ready for the Supreme Court's close-up

The people are ready for the Supreme Court's close-up
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As the United States Supreme Court’s 2017-2018 session begins, as it always does, on the first Monday in October, one issue will permeate debate: televising courtroom preceding.

This issue has divided the justices themselves and is discussed and debated on an annual basis without any progress toward opening the court’s proceedings to public view and understanding.

While U.S. citizens and viewers from around the world benefit from the TV coverage of the Supreme Court nomination and confirmation process, the cameras are unfortunately left outside when it comes to Supreme Court proceedings.

The late Justice Antonin Scalia argued that audio tapes of the proceedings are available for review, but it’s just not the same.

Ex-Baylor University President Kenneth Starr (former federal special prosecutor) stated that, “Cameras in the courtroom of the United States Supreme Court are long overdue … The benefits of increased access and transparency are many. Democracy’s first principles strongly support the people’s right to know how their government works.”

As a professor of law, I cannot think of anything more exciting and special to education then assigning a case to my students prior to the formal argument before the Supreme Court and then having the ability to show the live proceedings to the class.

There are times when students, and all of us, need to see in order to believe. There is real value in being able to watch history being made. Law school students, judges and attorneys would appreciate having an additional tool in their learning processes.

As citizens, we should be entitled to no less than open access, in person or by video, to the proceedings before the Supreme Court. This process appears to be working well when it comes to televising congressional hearings and on-the-floor debate — why not the Supreme Court? 

Justice Scalia expressed concern that if the court proceedings were televised, some people would watch a small portion of a proceeding and jump to conclusions. To this argument, my response is that unfortunately this is a consequence of the “on the go” lifestyle that so many of us live today.

The positives of some exposure to court proceedings simply outweigh the negatives of no exposure. Any number of state courts currently permit TV coverage of hearings and trials. Whether one of my students spends five minutes or one hour watching a Supreme Court proceeding, I am convinced that he or she will be left with a deeper respect for the court and the position it holds in our society. Yes, the people will be better for the experience. 

During her (televised) confirmation hearings before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Associate Justice Elena Kagan noted: “I think it would be a terrific thing … I think it would be a great thing for the institution, and more important, I think it would be a great thing for the American people."

While Congress has the power to resolve this controversy through the legislative process, the better approach would be to reach a consensus among the justices and do so sooner rather than later. 

Thomas Barry Cooke is a distinguished teaching professor at the Robert E. McDonough School of Business at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. A graduate of the Georgetown University Law Center (JD, LLM, MLT), Professor Cooke is a former state (Maryland) prosecutor and former state (Maryland) public defender. Professor Cooke is a member of the United States Supreme Court Bar.