A recent poll conducted by Penn Schoen Berland (PSB) on behalf of C-SPAN shows that 76 percent of respondents believe that cameras should be allowed in the Supreme Court during oral arguments. That number is up 15 percent since a similar PSB poll was conducted in June 2009. Currently the Court does release transcripts and audio recordings of oral arguments, but advocates of open broadcasts of the hearings believe that televising the arguments would give viewers a deeper understanding of the Court’s functioning. In addition to the camera question, the poll also concluded that two-thirds of respondents believe that the Justices are split on political leanings, a subject that I highlighted upon last Friday. Somewhat surprisingly, 79 percent of Americans believe that Justices should be subjected to an 18-year term limit, as opposed to the traditional lifetime appointment. The poll was conducted from July 1st-6th involving 1,201 adults, with a margin of error of +- 2.83 percent.
While announcing the results of the poll, PSB’s Robert Green said, “Greater visibility from televised oral arguments may represent a path for the U.S. Supreme Court to better explain their decisions and also improve their image.” A recent editorial in the New York Times echoes the pro-camera argument, and a July 2nd Washington Post reader poll shows that 57 percent of respondents believe cameras would help citizens understand how the Court arrives at its decisions. The Times notes that some of the biggest supporters of the idea are members of Congress, whose activities have been monitored by C-SPAN since 1979. Also, the editorial refutes the argument made by Justices that cameras would lead to grandstanding by participants, saying that since the matters at stake pertain more to legal theory and not individual plaintiffs and defendants, that argument is irrelevant.
Much like the Justices themselves, some like New York Law Journal’s Leon Polsky believe that the stakes are too high to allow cameras to alter how the participants and Justices handle the proceedings. Polsky finds it difficult to believe that “the truth finding process will not be skewed in subtle, unpredictable and perhaps uncorrectable ways by making all or some of the participant’s television performers or momentary celebrities.” Despite the large percentage of people believing that cameras should be used, only 43 percent of the PSB respondents thought it would boost the public’s respect for the process. Polsky writes that while he is concerned about participants who do not want to become part of a courtroom “docu-drama,” he is actually more concerned with those that do. He fears that soundbyte artists will become the most sought-after litigators, and that complex deliberations will be dumbed-down for the sake of the public. While that may be a bit hyperbolic considering the stellar resumes of the Justices and attorneys, in which arguing before the Court is the profession’s highest honor. Nonetheless, never forget where the Kardashian fortune originated from.
Multichannel News – John Eggerton
New York Law Journal – Leon Polsky
The Hill – Lydia Wheeler
The New York Times – Editorial Board