Chief Justice John Roberts recently told a group of people in Huntington Beach, California that he was not in favor of cameras being allowed in the U.S. Supreme Court. "We don't have oral arguments to show people, the public, how we function," he told the audience. Well, let's stop here and talk about the audience for a second. In case you couldn't guess, the audience was not a bunch of high school students or some civic group. The audience was composed of federal judges and their spouses.
Obviously, the Supreme Court doesn't have oral arguments to show people how the court functions. Even a guided tour through the various chambers wouldn't exactly show the public, or lawyers, how the court functions. So, that statement is basically a rah-rah red herring.
Judges, when they talk amongst themselves (and they do this a lot), strongly oppose cameras in the courtroom. But that doesn't mean it's not a good idea. What's going on is judges are doing the cost-benefit analysis in a way that reflects their sensibilities. They realize that a lot of attorneys play to the cameras and to popular sentiment, and they rightly fear that this will diminish the sanctimony of court proceedings.
But, it's not the cameras that cause the problem (i.e. guns don't kill people etc). It's something else: namely our innate desire for attention, which many of us express in really goofball ways. So, yes, having cameras in the courtroom will exacerbate this problem. First question: is there anything that could minimize the problem of attention-hounding lawyers, if and when cameras are allowed in the courtroom? Second, and more important question: what might be the short-term, and long-term benefits of having cameras in the courtroom? I agree it won't exactly show us how the court functions, but it may show us a lot of other useful things. Maybe it will show us how some things don't function as well as they should. Maybe it will allow us to see for ourselves (not filtered through a reporter's descripition) that certain attorneys are ill-prepared or brazen or stellar or [fill-in adjective].
But, regardless of whether we can reach a consensus on whether cameras in the courtroom might be useful, there is something else to consider.
Cameras in the courtroom are inevitable. Why? Because each succeeding generation expects more transparency and openess, especially from government institutions. This has been a long-running and powerful trend. Nationally, and internationally. So when Justice Roberts says that he and his fellow justices see themselves as "trustees of an extremely valuable institution," he is trying to preserve a tradition that over time will lack the resonance that it now has. If you want to receive applause for saying that cameras will never be allowed in the courtroom then make sure you are speaking to other judges. If you say that to other groups of people you'll find the applause is less enthusiastic. Eventually, there will be no applause outside of the judicial sect for this sort of statement.
In 1996, Justice David Souter told a congressional panel, "The day you see a camera come into our courtroom it's going to roll over my dead body." I don't think that will happen in a literal sense, but it actually could if Justice Souter chose to be buried on the steps leading up to the Supreme Court.
Eventually Justice Souter will pass away. This is an inevitability. And it's virtually inevitable that somewhere in the future there will be a generation of people who will expect to be able to see images of what happens in our public courtrooms, especially the United States Supreme Court. Yes, free speech and transparency are messy things that cause all kinds of problems, but they also have tremendous social force. I completely understand Justice Roberts' viewpoint, and to some extent I agree with it. But, regardless of who among us now agrees with it, the truth is that viewpoint has a limited life-span.
I'm not big on fighting things that are inevitable. I'm more inclined to say: so if it's coming, then how can we create a better transition? But then I'm also not someone who gets invited to talk to judicial groups a lot either.