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The people speak: Televise the Supreme Court

Courts and the JudiciaryMedia IndustryU.S. Supreme CourtAntonin Scalia
A new poll says 74% of Americans want TV cameras in the Supreme Court
Currently only audio of arguments is available
Justices fear that cameras would undermine the dignity of the court

For years, op-ed columnists and members of Congress have been imploring the Supreme Court to allow its public proceedings to be televised. Now cameras in the highest courtroom in the land have been endorsed by a group even less likely to sway the justices – the public.

According to a poll commissioned by the Coalition for Court Transparency, 74% of respondents support live television broadcasts of oral arguments and  the announcement of decisions. By a strangely smaller majority of 72%, they said there should at least be live audio broadcasts.

Actually, the court currently allows almost-live audio transmissions of arguments in a handful of high-profile cases. For example, a few hours after the court heard arguments on the constitutionality of Obamacare, visitors to the court’s website could hear Justice Antonin Scalia suggest  that if the government could require citizens to purchase health insurance, it could also make them buy broccoli. 

As I argued awhile back, it’s crazy for the  court to allow same-day audio for politically sexy cases while making listeners wait until the end of the week to listen to  the arguments in obscure tax and anti-trust cases. Talk about straining a gnat and swallowing a camel.

But evocative as an audio feed can be, it’s no substitute for video.  Justices worry about whether cameras would undermine the dignity of the court.  But if the institution survived Bush vs. Gore, it  can survive being televised.  And there are plenty of, er, precedents.  The Supreme Court of the United Kingdom allows TV cameras to broadcast its proceedings. 

Alas, the British  example probably will be more persuasive to most justices than the fact that the people support televised arguments. Members of Congress may have to pay attention to polls,  but life-tenured judges can rule them out of order.

The justices are particularly unlikely to be impressed by the views of respondents in this poll, 71% of whom said  that  lifetime appointments for Supreme Court justices should be abolished.

Follow Michael McGough on Twitter @MichaelMcGough3

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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