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


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‚ÄĒinterested 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. takes up the cause: