Let the sun shine on the Supremes

Posted: Nov 29, 2000 12:00 AM
When will the high and mighty hermits on the U.S. Supreme Court get over themselves and get with the 21st century? Unlike the judiciaries in 47 states, the highest court in the land still refuses to allow its hearings to be televised. Thanks to snooty traditions, unbridled egos, and specious fears, the Supreme Court's nine crusty justices remain secluded members of the nation's most inaccessible branch of government. Brian Lamb, pioneering chairman of the C-SPAN public affairs network, asked the court last week for permission to broadcast Texas Gov. George W. Bush's appeal of Florida's selective manual recounts of machine ballots. Who better than C-SPAN -- unedited, unobtrusive, and uncluttered by the idle chatter of network mannequins -- to provide real-time audio and video of the hearing? "We respectfully suggest that televised coverage ... would be an immense public service and would help the country understand and accept the outcome of the election," Lamb wrote in a letter to Chief Justice William Rehnquist. Despite the obvious educational and civic benefits, the court tersely rejected C-SPAN's request. So Bush's case will be heard this Friday, but only an exclusive clique of the legal and media elite will witness it. The audience for oral arguments in the country's most important legal cases is limited to members of the Supreme Court bar, special friends of the justices, parties to the lawsuits being heard, and a select group of print journalists. The rest of the general public must stand in line, sometimes camping out overnight on the courtroom's cold marble steps, for the brief privilege of observing the bench proceedings. Regular citizens can't take pencils, paper, laptops, or recording devices into the courtroom. The disembodied voices of the Supremes can barely be distinguished from the back row. If you're just a patriotic tourist who wants to catch a glimpse of the famed jurists in person, good luck. You'll barely be able to spot the top of Chief Justice Rehnquist's head or Justice Sandra Day O'Connor's ruffles. A first-year law student would be laughed out of the classroom if he gave the reasons the Supreme Court gives for clamping down on public access. Reclusive Supreme Court Justice David Souter says court TV cameras will have to roll over his "dead body." He and many other justices say they fear the O.J. factor, arguing that the presence of cameras will turn the courtroom into a circus and cause both judges and lawyers to tailor their behavior and remarks for the nightly news. Cameras weren't to blame for Judge Lance Ito's spinelessness and lack of control in Los Angeles. Cameras merely magnify flaws that already exist; they aren't the cause. Moreover, TV sensationalism that infects coverage of criminal trials would be greatly mitigated at the federal appellate level, where the court deliberates for months before issuing decisions. As for the concern that the justices' remarks will be selectively soundbited by the media, haven't these camera-shy Supremes ever read the New York Times' legal coverage (led by a reporter who marched in a pro-abortion rally during the height of legal challenges to the Roe v. Wade decision)? Instead of diminishing respect for the judicial branch, increased access would deepen citizens' appreciation for the rule of law and those who administer it. But as C-SPAN's Brian Lamb noted in a National Press Club speech a few years ago, "this is a town that's made on control. This is control central. Everybody in this town lives around the word 'control.' And no one wants to give it up when they don't have to. That's why the Supreme Court won't let television cameras in." The Supremes certainly don't mind when newspaper photographers snap their pictures at the latest Beltway book party or think-tank gala. If they don't like being exposed to the unwashed masses, they should join monasteries. The cult of secrecy has no place in a government of, by, and for the people. Judicial mystique is for the dark ages.