Television

Remind Me: Why Aren't Supreme Court Oral Arguments Televised?

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C-Span Chairman Brian Lamb has renewed his request that the Supreme Court allow the channel to cover oral arguments, this time in connection with the momentous constitutional challenge to the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. In a November 15 letter (PDF) to Chief Justice Roberts, Lamb writes:

We believe the public interest is best served by live television coverage of this particular oral argument. It is a case which will affect every American's life [and] the economy, and will certainly be an issue in the upcoming presidential campaign. Additionally, a five-and-a-half-hour begs for camera coverage—interested citizens would be understandably challenged to adequately follow audio-only coverage of an event of this length with all the justices and various counsel participating.

As New York Times Supreme Court reporter Adam Liptak notes, Roberts is almost certain to say no once again, for reasons that remain mysterious:

The Supreme Courts of Canada and the United Kingdom allow cameras. What the public sees in those countries, and what it would see here, is something not always prominent in the elected branches of our government: able public servants with a complete mastery of difficult materials grappling seriously with matters of surpassing consequence. It probably inspires confidence. It certainly dispels ignorance….

The arguments against cameras are mostly rooted in paternalism or self-interest. Some justices say the public cannot be trusted to understand what goes on at oral arguments and how the arguments figure in the work of the court. Others worry that additional public scrutiny would alter the behavior of lawyers and justices for the worse. Still others say they fear harm to their personal privacy or to the court's prestige.

In an interview, Mr. Lamb said he had heard one main objection from the justices. "It's the sound bite," he said. "They don't like, in the modern age, that people can sound bite them."…

The justices' real fear is probably not that their questions would be taken out of context but that they would be made to look silly, as they do occasionally say goofy things.

As a matter of public policy, as opposed to the self-interest of camera-shy judges, none of these objections seems valid. As Lamb tells Liptak, "If you can't do this in public and you're doing the public's business, then something is wrong with this picture."

Lamb discussed his quest to cover the Court in the December 2010 issue of Reason. Reason.tv takes up the cause:

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

37 responses to “Remind Me: Why Aren't Supreme Court Oral Arguments Televised?

  1. Yeah, if you don’t want to be seen or heard in public, don’t take one of the most important public service jobs in the country. Assholes.

  2. This is about nothing more or less than mystique, reverence, and mystery. Look at the ridiculous outfits they still wear for instance.
    SCOTUS and other high courts set themselves up with quasi-religious formalism and ritual, and TV would dispel that aura.

    1. If they were on TV all the time, even the doltish American public would eventually catch on to the fact that, for some reason, Anthony Kennedy is the most powerful person in America.

      And this might make Americans somewhat annoyed, considering that he has never been elected by the public to anything, he has the job for the rest of his life, and nobody knows a fucking thing about the guy.

  3. The delicate genius of the jurists is too beautiful for this world of television.

    1. Do they glow? DO THEY GLOW!?!?!

      1. they sparkle

        1. That’s just the unicorn farts that always hover around them.

    2. Yes, as we see from TV coverage of Congress – you truly get to see the brilliance of Reps & Senators at work. Of course you might have to watch 1000 hours to see a nano-second of brilliance – but it is there!

      1. Every session has to adjourn, right? So there’s that.

        1. Consider who might become the Chucky Schumer of SCOTUS. You really want to see that?

  4. They’re not very good looking people and I’d prefer not to have ugly people on my TV.

    True Story: I went to a SCOTUS arguement. They started with a docent telling the assembled mob that “This is the Super Court and don’t act like jackasses.” A tourist family was sitting in front of us. A little girl of 3-4 years was squirming, and as we waited for the SuperCourt Friends to come in, yelled to her dad “Hey, when is the show starting?”

    From the mouths of babes.

    1. bread and circuses…bread and circuses

    2. This is the reason and no other. If we had younger, more attractive justices, they’d be televised. Simple as that.

      For the record, there are no legal requirements to sit on the Supreme Court, other than being appointed and confirmed. So, for instance, Obama could appoint Katy Perry, and the Senate could confirm her.

  5. interested citizens would be understandably challenged to adequately follow audio-only coverage of an event of this length with all the justices and various counsel participating.

    In an interview, Mr. Lamb said he had heard one main objection from the justices. “It’s the sound bite,” he said. “They don’t like, in the modern age, that people can sound bite them.”…

    How can audio not be sound bited?

    1. The same way that glitter can’t be faxed.

  6. Oral arguments are recorded and you can download them shortly after they have taken place. I wonder if the justices feel that the knowledge that they are being recorded and anyone can listen to them later changes the behavior of the advocates?

  7. “The Supreme Courts of Canada and the United Kingdom allow cameras”

    But they are not our teachers, Grasshopper.

    1. “The Supreme Courts of Canada and the United Kingdom allow cameras”

      They both have single payer healthcare too.

    2. Yeah, the Supreme Courts of Canada and UK do a lot of things that shouldn’t be done. Such an argument does not help one’s cause… at least not with Libertarians.

  8. I am opposed to filming. The footage will end up being used in campaign ads.

    Associate Justice Sotomayor says white people are dumb. In her perfect world, all judges would be Latinas. Sonia Sotomayor. Bad for gringos, bad for America.

    1. Riiiiight….

    2. Riiiiight….

    3. Wow, the squirrels manage to invert time. This is cause for concern.

      1. Were they involved in the FTL particle study?

        1. Squirrels faster than light?

          No wonder I can’t get those fuckers out of the attic no matter how many of them I shoot.

  9. They should televise the oral arguments and set up a system so that viewers could use their cell phones to vote the legislation up or down.

  10. The more transparency in public decisions, the better. If you think being recorded will affect the way you decide cases, then you shouldn’t be a public official. The supreme court looks like a freaking cult, trade in the robes for suits while you’re at it.

    1. Atleast htey don’t wear the wigs the British judges do.

      1. Why do you hate jobs. I weep for the impoverished American Wig Makers.

    2. Don’t be silly. Without robes, how can they masturbate during orals?

  11. “able public servants with a complete mastery of difficult materials grappling seriously with matters of surpassing consequence”

    Well, there’s your problem, SCOTUS doesn’t match the description.

    1. Really? You don’t think they are able, know the law well, and truly grapple with the issues? Especially compared to the jokers in Congress and the executive branch?

      1. You’re talking about the clerks, right?

        1. Many of the justices were SCOTUS clerks themselves.

  12. The influence aspect would concern me if people watched C-SPAN.

    Also, Martian death-rays would concern me if there were Martians and they were beaming death-rays at us.

    Soundbites on the evening news – yeah, I see the problem, but…

    If you live your life worrying about what other people think of you, then you are pretty much guaranteed to be useless and incompetent.

    Examples: Politicians. Celebrities.

  13. Maybe they would agree to do it if you blurred out their faces and ran their voices through a filter.

    Ginsburg and Kagan should use that in real life, too.

  14. Wait a minute. The explanations for banning TV make no sense. The Court posts the audio replays of its oral arguments on its website. Any of these supposed evil effects — use of sound bites, the public not understanding, lawyers playing to the public– already exist.

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