Cable Network Cameras in the Supreme Court? The Answer Is Still No

By Alex Weprin 

Chief Justice John Roberts spoke at the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals Conference in White Sulphur Springs, West Virgina over the weekend, and C-SPAN was there to catch all of the action.

Roberts was asked the familiar question about allowing cameras in the courtroom, either to catch action live, or to make it available to news organizations and the public after the fact.

Like the question, the response was familiar: no.

“We worry about the impact on lawyers, I worry about the impact on judges … We unfortunately fall into grandstanding with a couple of hundred people in the courtroom. I’m a little concerned about what the impact would be.”

That said, Roberts did cite a pilot program in some of the lower courts to test the impact of having cameras covering cases. According to an attorney familiar with this matter, the concerns judges have with cameras in the courtroom fall into a few categories.

The first, cited by Roberts, is that their presence could change the way attorneys or judges act, knowing that they may be in front of a national audience.

Another is that the cable news culture is focused on soundbites, while the judicial process tends to be drawn-out and slow. A news program might run a five second quip made by Justice Scalia that has no bearing on the case, and that might be how the public remembers it. In reality, the case would be decided months later by the quiet release of a written decision. In other words, at least in the Supreme Court, oral arguments are not as important as the written arguments, and the presence or cameras threatens to make something out of nothing.

Sill, as people demand transparency, cameras become an increasingly simple way to make government easier to monitor. Perhaps live coverage wont happen, but some after-the-fact video might not be a stretch at some point in the next few years.