Cameras in the courtroom have become a ubiquitous part of the nation's legal process, from local bond hearings to arguments before the Florida Supreme Court. But the U.S. Supreme Court continues to ban their presence during oral arguments before the nine justices, denying the public the opportunity to witness compelling debates over critically important legal questions such as California's ban on gay marriage and the federal Defense of Marriage Act. Audiotapes of this week's arguments were compelling, but they are no substitute for live television.
One of the high court's most vociferous opponents of cameras in the courtroom, Justice Antonin Scalia, has argued the presence of a camera during oral arguments would be counterproductive and "mis-educate" Americans about the court system. In reality, more openness would lead to a better understanding of the court and the difficulty of the issues. Lifting the curtain should improve public confidence in the Supreme Court.
It has only been since 2000, when the court considered Bush vs. Gore and stopped the Florida presidential election recount, that audio recordings of oral arguments occasionally have been made public. However, even those recordings are issued several hours after the court has adjourned.
Early concerns about discreetly positioned cameras distracting witnesses, jurors, judges and attorneys have proven to be unfounded. And the presence of cameras, with the possible exception of the O.J. Simpson murder trial, have not led to a rash of over-the-top courtroom histrionics. Yet the nation's top court and the rest of the federal judiciary continue to prevent the wider public from being able to view court proceedings.
Given the intense interest in the gay marriage cases, the high court missed an opportunity to pull back the curtain on how it goes about its business — to allow the public to witness for themselves the details, nuances and complexities of the cases. Lady Justice may be blind, but that doesn't mean the public should remain in the dark and unable to watch the nation's highest court.