Alito, Kagan oppose cameras in Supreme Court

Alito, Kagan oppose cameras in Supreme Court
© Stefani Reynolds

Two Supreme Court justices told House lawmakers Thursday that allowing cameras to film the high court’s proceedings could impair its ability to conduct arguments effectively.

Appearing before a subpanel of the House Appropriations Committee, Associate Justices Samuel Alito and Elena Kagan rejected an appeal from a Democratic chairman to allow Supreme Court arguments to be televised.

Rep. Mike QuigleyMichael (Mike) Bruce Quigley20 years after Columbine, Dems bullish on gun reform Mnuchin tells Congress it's 'premature' to talk about Trump tax returns decision HUD chief Carson leaves Dem lawmaker exasperated with answer on LGBT protections MORE (D-Ill.), who chairs the Appropriations Subcommittee on Financial Services and General Government, told Alito and Kagan that most people “have no idea how Supreme Court proceedings work.”

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“It’s not unreasonable for the American people to have an opportunity to hear firsthand the arguments and opinions that will shape our society for years to come,” Quigley said during a hearing on the Supreme Court’s 2020 funding request.

Lawmakers in both parties have proposed televising Supreme Court arguments, but the court’s justices have opposed the idea over concerns that cameras could taint arguments with theatrics.

Alito said Thursday that while he supported televising hearings when he was a judge on the 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals, "when I got to the Supreme Court, I saw things differently.”

He argued that while cameras could give Americans a greater understanding of the Supreme Court, they could also prompt theatrics from attorneys and justices.

“Lawyers would find it irresistible to try to put in a little sound bite in the hope of being that evening on CNN or Fox or MSNBC on one of the broadcast networks, and that would detract from the value of the arguments in the decisionmaking process,” said Alito, an appointee of former President George W. Bush.

Kagan, an appointee of former President Obama, said “it’s no small benefit” for the American public to see the collegial Supreme Court in action. But she warned that “if the seeing it came at the expense of the way the institution functioned, that would be a very bad bargain, and I do worry cameras might come at that expense.”

Kagan said she feared that justices would feel uncomfortable playing devil’s advocate in arguments with the risk that clips from the proceedings could be taken out of context.

“I don’t think all that many people would grandstand. I hope that my colleagues and I would not do that. But I think we might filter ourselves in ways that might be unfortunate,” Kagan said.

“I challenge people in ways that might sound as though I have views on things that I in fact do not, just because that’s the best way of really understanding the pros and cons of a case.”

Alito and Kagan touted other ways the court has sought to boost transparency. The court now releases transcripts and audio recordings of its arguments hours after they’re completed.

While a growing number of lawmakers and court-watchers support bringing cameras into the Supreme Court, there’s enough resistance in Congress to prevent action. 

Critics of the idea point to the contentious and explosive nature of televised congressional hearings, which often feature excessive partisan grandstanding and little fact-finding.

“I don’t believe that more visibility and cameras in the courtroom would be any good,” said Rep. David JoyceDavid Patrick JoyceThe STATES Act will expose flawed marijuana legacy Bipartisan bill to protect legal cannabis businesses introduced EPA chief doubles down on Trump's commitment to fully fund Great Lakes program MORE (R-Ohio), a former prosecutor.

“Just from my limited time here in the House, people are changed beings when they get in front of the camera, and not all for the good.”