The new chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee (the first non-lawyer to hold the position), Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA), announced his plans to once again try to get television coverage of U.S. Supreme Court hearings. His latest effort, co-sponsored by Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL), is the Cameras in the Courtroom Act of 2015, which reads:
“The Supreme Court shall permit television coverage of all open sessions of the Court unless the Court decides, by a vote of the majority of justices, that allowing such coverage in a particular case would constitute a violation of the due process rights of 1 or more of the parties before the Court.”
During a news conference at the National Press Club, Sen. Grassley said, “I believe that we could enhance people’s understanding of the court system by having Supreme Court TV. I’m a firm believer in it,” he continued. Some justices have commented over the years that TV cameras would find their way into the Court “over their dead bodies.” The senator jokingly added, “It happens that I don’t want those two justices to die.”
In fact, of the two most vocal justices, one actually is deceased. Chief Justice Warren Burger was adamant against televising SCOTUS hearings. He did tone down his comments eventually, as he didn’t want journalists to take him literally. I’m not sure if he was joking. Retired Justice David Souter was another vocal opponent of the TV cameras. I’m happy to report that he is alive and well.
Sen. Grassley freely admits that it may be an uphill challenge to get the legislation passed. It’s a fairly divisive issue party-wise, so he believes success is “not quite as easily predictable” as it would be with other bills that have bipartisan support.
Some attorneys support the idea. Kurt Wimmer, media lawyer with Covington & Burling, stated his opinion in 2014 when news of Sen. Grassley’s rise to chairman was announced.
“Senator Grassley should exercise the leadership that this issue needs. The Supreme Court is making decisions that have an impact on the lives of every citizen in the country, and there’s no excuse for doing it under a cloak of mystery.”
Not everyone feels the same, especially the Court. It now provides audio recordings of some arguments soon after they’re over. The reasoning behind the justices’ opposition to TV cameras makes sense. The oral arguments are just one tiny part of a complex deliberative process. Showing America bits and pieces, especially those designed to elicit the best ratings, doesn’t serve to increase transparency. Instead, it creates confusion. Justice Sonia Sotomayor, one of the few justices in favor of cameras in the Court, even says that televised hearings “could be more misleading than helpful” especially to those who haven’t examined the issues before watching the arguments. “Very few of them understand what our process is,” she said.
While I’m generally a fan of transparent government, I have to side with those justices who would rather it didn’t happen. My opposition reflects Justice Sotomayor’s comment. We live in an age where more Americans can name every Kardashian but cannot name at least two Supreme Court Justices. It is an age of sound bytes and ratings hype and attention spans shorter than most stoplights. Yes, the Supreme Court does decide huge issues that impact every American; however, there’s an old saying about “knowing enough to be dangerous.”
If “Supreme Court TV” becomes a reality, the majority of Americans won’t become more educated about how the system works. Rather, they’ll tune in for five minutes or hear a catchy, ratings-increasing snippet and make up their minds based on that limited information. That is dangerous.
Take for example the hearings on gay marriage. There is a Facebook meme going around (see below) of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg and a quote from the recent hearings.
This is a pretty powerful quote, especially when taken in context. Now, if I were a ratings seeker, I’d spin it such that the first sentence was all that was advertised. How could you? That’s shockingly incorrect! Well, yeah, it is incorrect. It makes Justice Ginsberg look as though she is not only against gay marriage, but is also in favor of an antiquated style of heterosexual marriage. Most incorrect, indeed!
But I’ll bet you’d tune in! If you did, you’d find out what she really said and one way or another it would inform you. If you didn’t follow up though, might that sound byte have swayed you? Misinformed you? Therein lies the danger. This is only an example and, using reductio ad absurdum, a pretty silly one. However, I hope I’ve shown you how it could become problematic. Time will tell.