End the ban on cam­eras

Give the public a front-row seat to the Supreme Court.

The Washington Post Sunday - - SUNDAY OPINION -

THE OR­NATE mar­ble cham­ber in which the Supreme Court hears cases ac­com­mo­dates about 400 spec­ta­tors. Among these are re­porters, guests of the jus­tices and mem­bers of the Supreme Court Bar — lawyers whomay never ar­gue a case be­fore the jus­tices but who re­tain priv­i­leges at the court. Once all those take their seats, The Post’s Robert Barnes re­ports, some­times fewer than 100 spa­ces re­main. The re­sult: long, long lines for mem­bers of the public hop­ing to hear a ma­jor case ar­gued or de­cided.

The court tried to make things a lit­tle fairer last week, in­form­ing lawyers that they would have to line up per­son­ally to get into their spe­cial sec­tion, in­stead of hir­ing line-standers to wait for them. But the odds will still be stacked against the public. Or­di­nary peo­ple should have a front-row seat to the pro­ceed­ings in one of the most pow­er­ful public in­sti­tu­tions in the coun­try— even if it’s a vir­tual seat. It’s time for the court to end its ban on cam­eras in the court­room.

Tran­scripts of oral ar­gu­ments of­ten post hours af­ter they oc­cur. Au­dio usu­ally isn’t avail­able un­til the end of the week. Those who don’t get in must rely on snip­pets from Twit­ter and other sec­ond­hand ac­counts for in­for­ma­tion on court ar­gu­ments or de­ci­sions, de­priv­ing them of con­text to un­der­stand the jus­tices’ words.

The pres­ence of live au­dio and video would solve these prob­lems, and more. It would be a po­tent tool to sharpen public in­ter­est in le­gal is­sues and the court’s role in re­solv­ing them. The court is fi­nanced by the public and works on its be­half. Un­less there is some ma­jor na­tional in­ter­est in keep­ing pro­ceed­ings cloaked, the de­fault po­si­tion should be public ac­cess.

Crit­ics of cam­eras worry about turn­ing the court into a cir­cus. Lawyers might grand­stand, play­ing to tele­vi­sion au­di­ences rather than keep­ing their eyes on the sub­stance. Jus­tices might wa­ter down their ques­tions and com­ments, re­plac­ing clar­ity and so­phis­ti­ca­tion with over­sim­pli­fi­ca­tion. The public might pay more at­ten­tion to the per­son­al­i­ties on the court than the sub­stance of the law.

Any of the lucky few who have seen the jus­tices in ac­tion should re­al­ize that these risks are small. The jus­tices can be counted on to in­ter­rupt lawyers on a near-con­stant ba­sis, leav­ing lit­tle op­por­tu­nity for grand­stand­ing. The jus­tices al­ready at­tempt to use real-world lan­guage and analo­gies to sim­plify com­plex le­gal is­sues for re­porters and the tran­script-read­ing public. And de­ci­sions al­ready are rou­tinely scru­ti­nized with ref­er­ence to the per­son­al­i­ties in­volved.

Chief Jus­tice John G. Roberts Jr. has not of­fered en­cour­ag­ing sig­nals about re­vers­ing the court’s cam­era ban. We’d ask that he at least al­low live au­dio as a first, ex­per­i­men­tal step. If that does not erode the ca­pa­bil­ity of the court to func­tion in a dig­ni­fied man­ner, cam­eras could be the next step.

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