Covering The Supreme Court, Camera-Free

By Alex Weprin 

Judge Judy this isn’t. As the Supreme Court concluded three days of Oral Arguments on the validity of President Obama’s signature legislation, the health care reform law, there’s no shortage of opinion about why most Americans never got to see any of the action.

“The Justices are appropriately conservative about the inner workings of the court,” Jeffrey Toobin, CNN legal analyst and author of the Supreme Court book The Nine told TVNewser between live reports Wednesday. “They all have great reverence for the institution and don’t want to damage it in any way, and that is a very understandable and appropriate concern. But, they are also doing the people’s business, and the people should be able to see it.”

What the court does do — largely because of C-SPAN’s relentless commitment to asking for more access — is to release audio recordings of the arguments at the end of every week. In the case of the high-profile health care case, it was every day.


“I think they are clearly softening their position on audio,” Toobin says. “They already tape-record it, so even streaming it live on the web would have absolutely no impact on their proceedings, and I bet within five years they will be doing that. Video is a completely different story, and I am less optimistic about that.”

Admittedly, the Court has reason to withhold video coverage of oral arguments, even if those reasons are based more on fear of embarrassment than anything else. A former clerk to a current Supreme Court Justice told us that internally there were two issues with cameras in the high court.

The first is that TV news will condense hour-long arguments into pithy soundbites. The second: that it would place too much emphasis on oral arguments, which are less important in an appeals court such as the Supreme Court than in lower courts.

NBC News chief justice correspondent Pete Williams tells TVNewser the “soundbites” issue really doesn’t hold water, and that there are likely other reasons why the Justices are reluctant to add cameras.

“As stewards of the Supreme Court, they are uncertain of what effect TV coverage will have, so they don’t want to go there. Secondly, I think frankly, some of the justices like their anonymity.  They don’t want to be hassled on the street. They like not being out there on camera all the time,” Williams says. “I suspect also that in this YouTube generation, the Supreme Court justices don’t want to see little bites of the Supreme Court on ‘The Daily Show’ either, or showing up as viral videos. I am not sure that is a very good reason to not have cameras in the Supreme Court, but as I said the reasons range from the extremely valid to the trivial.”

One court that disagrees with the Supreme’s stance is the court of public opinion. According to a poll commissioned by C-SPAN earlier this month, 74% of Americans want the court to allow TV coverage of oral arguments, and 86% of respondents say that the court should have allowed cameras in for the health care arguments.

“The arguments against cameras in the Supreme Court are totally frivolous,” Toobin argued. “The Supreme Court is dealing with legal issues, there are no witnesses to be intimidate by cameras, they have life tenure, they are dealing with the most important subjects for the future of the country, and all but 400 people never get to see it.”

“We have covered the confirmation hearings of all of the justices, and they all address the issue of cameras,” says Terry Murphy, VP of programming for C-SPAN. “Sometimes they say they support it, sometimes they say—Justice Souter said ‘over my dead body’ would cameras come into the court. They all have differences of opinion. My sense — this is just an educated sense — is that they won’t do it until all nine of them agree.”

NBC’s Williams agrees.

“It has been like this since time immemorial. We have never had TV pictures out of the Supreme Court and I suspect we will not have any in my lifetime.”