Lights, camera, SCOTUS

Lights, camera, SCOTUS
© Greg Nash

The Supreme Court is a power center in the government that has desegregated schools, codified gun rights and legalized same-sex marriage. But few ever see it at work.

Gabe Roth, the executive director of Fix the Court, is trying to change that.

Roth is leading the charge to get cameras into the Supreme Court’s chambers so that its deliberations can be viewed by all, not just those lucky enough to get a seat in the courtroom.

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The idea was born out of conversations Roth had with clients while working at the public relations firm SKDKnickerbocker in Washington. One of Roth’s clients at the time was the Coalition for Court Transparency.

“We had all these major issues that our clients cared for that were going to the Supreme Court, yet they couldn’t see what was going on, they couldn’t hear [it] live,” Roth said.

The Supreme Court has about 50 seats reserved for the general public that are first come, first served. People can also wait in line for a three-minute glimpse of arguments.

Outside of getting a seat, media reports are the only immediate window into the court’s deliberations. The court releases audio of its proceedings, but not until the Friday after arguments.

Still, Roth’s push for transparency goes beyond cameras.

He says there are other major changes needed at the court, including term limits for justices, a judicial code of conduct and a requirement that the justices sell their individual stocks. Roth also says the court should post the justices’ financial disclosure forms online and announce when they agree to speaking engagements and appearances.

The goal, Roth says, isn’t to paint the court in an unflattering light; it’s to bring into public view the thoughtful, funny, interesting people who sit on the bench.

“There’s a ton of personality” at the court, Roth said, noting Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s workout routine that made national headlines earlier this year. The 84-year-old justice does both planks and pushups with her personal trainer. 

“The idea that the court would want to cloister itself when it’s comprised of amazing, interesting, thoughtful individuals just doesn’t make any sense.”

Roth founded the New York City-based Fix the Court in November 2014 with funding from the New Venture Fund.

While the organization is focused on the Supreme Court, it is pushing for more transparency across the federal judiciary — and has already seen some success.

Almost all of the lower circuit courts, Roth said, have opened up their media policies in recent years.

The D.C. Circuit switched to same-day audio in 2013 and provides live audio upon request. In April 2015 the 9th Circuit began video streaming and archiving oral arguments in all of its cases.

When challenges to President Trump’s travel ban reached the Richmond-based 4th Circuit Court of Appeals in May, the court allowed C-SPAN to livestream audio of the proceedings.

Beyond broadcasting, Roth said the majority of the courts now have judicial wellness committees or are at least having discussions about aging judges and justices.

“One of the biggest open secrets about the Supreme Court throughout its history is that in almost every generation of justices, there have been one or two who have lost their mental faculties while they were still on the bench,” he said. “William O. Douglas is the one who is always brought to mind first.”

Douglas, according to his obituary in The Washington Post, was forced to retire on Nov. 12, 1975, because of the crippling effects of a stroke he suffered the previous New Year’s Eve.

As for cameras in the high court, Roth said, their time will come. He’s not the only one pushing for them.

Rep. Gerry ConnollyGerald (Gerry) Edward ConnollyDem on Puerto Rico and Trump: ‘God only knows’ what he'd consider a failure Congress losing faith in Nobel Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi Virginia reps urge Trump to declare federal emergency ahead of Hurricane Florence MORE (D-Va.) and Rep. Ted PoeLloyd (Ted) Theodore PoeCook shifts two House GOP seats closer to Dem column Five races to watch in the Texas runoffs Five Republican run-offs to watch in Texas MORE (R-Texas), a former judge, reintroduced the Cameras in the Courtroom Act at the beginning of the year. Sen. Dick DurbinRichard (Dick) Joseph DurbinKavanaugh’s fate rests with Sen. Collins Amnesty International calls to halt Kavanaugh nomination Fox's Chris Wallace: All 10 Democratic Senate Judiciary members again declined interview invitations MORE (D-Ill.), a longtime advocate of cameras at the court, has a companion bill in the Senate.

“Only 50 or more seats are reserved for the general public,” Connolly said. “In a country with over 320 million people, only 50 get to actually watch it in action. ”

The Supreme Court denied a request that Connolly and Poe made with Reps. Mike Quigley (D-Ill.) and Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) for the court to provide live audio of the Oct. 3 arguments in Gill v. Whitford, a potential landmark case challenging partisan gerrymandering.

“They have a gerrymandering case that could completely upend how we draw lines for state legislatures and Congress, and that should have been televised, and the whole public should have been able to see it, ” Connolly told The Hill.

In denying the request, the court told the lawmakers that Chief Justice John Roberts has sought throughout his tenure to make the Supreme Court’s work more accessible to the public.

“The court now posts its opinions online simultaneously with their announcement, posts oral argument transcripts as soon as possible following the argument and posts audio recordings of those arguments by the end of the week,” Jeffrey Minear, counsel to the chief justice, wrote in his responding letter. He noted the court is launching a new electronic filing system in November.

Minear said the justices are concerned that live broadcast or streaming of oral arguments “could adversely affect the character and quality of the dialogue between the attorneys and justices.”

Despite Minear’s letter, Roth said he thinks the court will assent to cameras eventually.

“While all nine of them may be singing from the same song book right now, I don’t think their views are hardened,” he said. “When a new generation of justices get on the court, the nine will be more open to opening up their hearings.”

  “Whether it be same-day audio, next-week video, I think that will change over time,” he said.

Connolly agrees.

“Sometimes ideas need to ripen,” he said. “From Teddy Roosevelt to Lyndon Johnson we talked about the idea of health care for seniors. It finally ripened in 1965 with Medicare. Some big ideas take a long time, and resistance to change is particularly acute in the very archaic workings of the Supreme Court.”

In the meantime, Connolly said the world needs more people like Roth pushing the issue.

“I think this is a vital part of our democracy, and it needs to be addressed,” he said.

“He’s been a great champion in that regard, and it’s an idea whose time will come.”