Supreme Court TV


In 1996, Supreme Court Justice David H. Souter told a congressional committee that “the day you see a camera come into our courtroom, it’s going to roll over my dead body.” Fortunately, Souter’s impending retirement will spare his colleagues -- if not a television audience -- that spectacle. It also creates the possibility that his successor will join other recent appointees in opening the door wider to televised oral arguments.

So, after they are finished asking about abortion and wise Latinas, members of the Senate Judiciary Committee should elicit Judge Sonia Sotomayor’s views of TV cameras in the court. President Bush’s two nominees, Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr., didn’t echo Souter’s alarm. Roberts told the Judiciary Committee he had no “set view” on the subject. Alito recalled: “We had a debate within our [federal appeals] court about whether we would or should allow television cameras in our courtroom. I argued that we should do it.”

Since their confirmations, Alito and Roberts have been somewhat more cautious. The justices as a group are divided in their personal attitudes toward cameras, but united in a preference to do nothing in the near future. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said in 2000 that “I would not object, just for myself,” but she added that cameras shouldn’t be forced on colleagues who disagreed. Justice Stephen G. Breyer had this (too) judicious response in 2005: “I think there are good reasons for it and good reasons against it.” Leading the naysayers are justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas. Thomas has undergone a post-confirmation conversion, telling senators in 1991 that he had no objection to cameras but arguing more recently that, after 9/11, televising the faces of justices would make them vulnerable to terrorism. Then there is Justice Anthony M. Kennedy’s comment in 2007 that if cameras were present, he might suspect a colleague of “saying something for a sound bite.”


All these objections have been convincingly refuted. Terrorists who wonder what justices look like can consult still pictures or videos of law school seminars. As for the idea that justices would show off to ensure a few seconds on the evening news: Federal judges serve for life; they don’t have to rely on good Nielsen ratings. Moreover, courts that have allowed televised arguments -- as the California Supreme Court did for arguments on same-sex marriage -- haven’t inspired judges to ham it up. Finally, the contention that cameras would alter the traditions of the court has been undermined by recent innovations such as the same-day release of audio recordings of high-profile arguments and the prompt posting on the Internet of transcripts.

An assertive advocate of cameras in the court could help nudge her colleagues to take the next step. How about it, Judge Sotomayor?