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Intellect

Supreme Court reporters at BYU: Let cameras in the court

Prominent members of press corps sound off on Supreme Court

On the Supreme Court's prohibition of cameras in the courtroom:

  • “To me it is an open-and-shut case of a blatant First Amendment violation." - Lyle Denniston
  • "Performance is enhanced by scrutiny. The press is present – that enhances performance. Cameras would enhance performance even more.” - Adam Liptak

The public doesn’t know much about the Supreme Court, and they know even less about the nine justices who sit on that court. A recent poll shows two-thirds of Americans can’t name a single justice.

That would probably change if the justices were as accessible as other public figures. It would definitely change if cameras were allowed in the Supreme Court.

“My life’s work has been to try to get the public to learn more about the Supreme Court,” said Tony Mauro, who covers the court for The National Law Journal. “Still, the public doesn’t know anything about the Supreme Court.”

Mauro and three other prominent Supreme Court reporters pulled back a bit the curtain of mystery surrounding the Supreme Court last week during the BYU Law Review Symposium.

Mauro was joined by Adam Liptak of The New York Times, Dahlia Lithwick of Slate and 54-year court reporting veteran Lyle Denniston of SCOTUSblog.

And none of them hesitated to criticize the court – especially about the prohibition of TV cameras in the courtroom.

“You shouldn’t be able to restrict access on the basis of the nature of the media,” Denniston said. “To me it is an open-and-shut case of a blatant First Amendment violation.”

Mauro said the “arrogant opposition” to cameras comes from the court having a self-image of being unique from the other branches of government.

“They carry this just way too far: ‘We are such fragile flowers and such unique people that the public can’t watch us,’” Mauro said.

Liptak, who also presented a lecture Friday morning at the Kennedy Center on covering the court, said introducing cameras to the court’s oral arguments would be beneficial to the court itself.

Panelists mentioned that cameras are allowed in the supreme courts of Canada, the UK and Brazil – and that Brazil’s Supreme Court even allows cameras to cover the justices’ deliberations inside their chambers.

“It’s a very paternalistic thing to say, ‘I don’t trust you, American public, to make sense of what’s going on here,’” Liptak said. “Performance is enhanced by scrutiny. The press is present – that enhances performance. Cameras would enhance performance even more.”

The four panelists spoke to law students and law faculty Jan. 26 in the packed moot courtroom. As part of the symposium, constitutional law expert Erwin Chemerinsky, dean of the UC-Irvine School of Law, also presented a keynote.

In his keynote address, Chemerinsky also called on the Supreme Court to allow cameras: “We shouldn’t have the Supreme Court’s esteem artificially inflated by ignorance,” he said.

Chemerinsky said the camera issue underlines his opinion that the court fails to communicate effectively with the public. To improve communications, he said the court should explain why it refuses to hear cases and should tell the public when decisions are coming, in addition to allowing cameras.

During the Jan. 26 panel, Slate’s Lithwick said the irony of the camera prohibition is that the only time the public sees the Supreme Court justices is during their “dismal confirmation hearings.”

“It’s not as though we don’t have the experience of watching these people," Lithwick said. “We just have the experience of watching them shuck and jive for five days and refuse to answer any questions as people bring up embarrassing anecdotes...

“Why don’t you broadcast the incredible, ennobling, powerful thing which is oral arguments? They don’t understand – or they choose not to take note of the fact – that the idea of who they are, for most Americans, is frozen in amber the day the gavel goes down in the confirmation hearings.…They make the decision: ‘No, no America, we just want you to see us at our very worst,’” she said.

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