Politics

Is It Time for TV Cameras at the Supreme Court?

Poll shows public overwhelmingly favors idea, but justices have been reluctant to change tradition

Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh will — if past is prologue — almost certainly face questions in his confirmation hearing starting Tuesday on how he stands on whether the tradition-bound institution should allow TV cameras to cover the proceedings.

A PSB poll commissioned by C-SPAN this week suggested widespread support for the idea — 64 percent of likely voters agreed the court should allow its oral arguments to be televised.

That is far higher than the share of voters who believe justices decide cases based on the Constitution rather than political ideology. It also greatly exceeds the share of voters who support Kavanaugh’s confirmation.

Support cuts across party and age lines. Democrats and liberals are most supportive, at 70 percent and 68 percent, respectively. But the idea also has the support of 59 percent of Republicans and 57 percent of conservatives. Support ranges from a low of 55 percent among senior citizens to a high of 74 percent among those younger than 35.

Adam Rosenblatt, senior strategist at PSB, told LifeZette that a lack of cameras in the courtroom may contribute to the survey’s findings that voters lack basic knowledge about the justices.

Only 25 percent could name Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the best-known of the justices, while 52 percent could not identify any justice. Despite this, 69 percent of respondents said they are following Kavanaugh’s confirmation process.

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“They’re following it,” Rosenblatt said. “But there’s not enough openness in the court.”

Rosenblatt said allowing oral arguments to be televised would be a small concession since those arguments already are open to the public and represent a small part of a justice’s duties.

“We’re just asking for a tiny glimpse … The excuses they’ve come up with are not good excuses,” he said.

Critics argue cameras would change the court. Defenders of the status quo, however, argue that the presence of cameras would change the way the court operates — and not necessarily for the good.

“If people want to argue for cameras by saying that they have them in Congress, a red flag goes up in my head, because we’re already trying to equate the court with the legislative branch,” said Thomas Jipping, deputy director of the Edwin Meese III Center for Legal and Judicial Studies at the conservative-leaning Heritage Foundation.

Jipping said the public could not possibly understand the court’s work simply by tuning in to oral arguments, because most of the work takes place behind closed doors, where judges read legal arguments and discuss cases among themselves. He said televised oral arguments would distort, not illuminate, the public’s understanding.

“It would undermine the integrity of what does go on there … There is not a chance in the world that it would add to the accurate understanding of what goes on by having cameras in the courtroom for a few minutes,” he said.

Carrie Severino, chief counsel and policy director at the Judicial Crisis Network, said the issue is not one on which her organization — which is focused on supporting Kavanaugh’s nomination — has taken a position.

But Severino said her personal view is that cameras are unlikely to improve operations of the court. She said anyone who thinks otherwise should pay attention to how senators with presidential ambitions behave at next week’s hearings, which will be televised live.

“Tell me if you think cameras in the room are making the senators do their jobs well,” she said.

But Rosenblatt said he believes removing the mystery by putting the court on TV would have the opposite effect that critics fear. He pointed to polls showing that confidence in the court is sliding. He said part of that is a misunderstanding of the court’s role and that blocking televised coverage contributes to that.

“It’s hurting their institution … They’ve outsourced their voice to everyone else,” he said.

Rosenblatt noted that courts in many states and in foreign countries have opened their proceedings to cameras with no detrimental impact. Unlike members of Congress, he added, justices enjoy lifetime tenure and have no incentive to play to the cameras for electoral reasons.

What the justices have said. Most justices in recent years have expressed support for the idea, or at least openness to it. Yet, the court has not changed its practice, and bills in Congress to mandate it have gone nowhere.

Chief Justice John Roberts told senators at his 2005 confirmation hearing he’d been told that “television cameras are nothing to be afraid of,” adding that he would want to listen to the views of his future colleagues.

“If our arguments were on television, we’d face some very stiff competition because there is already a surfeit of programming for court aficionados.”

But at a judicial conference the following summer, he said there was a concern about “the impact of television on the functioning of the institution.” Last June, he said television “changes a lot” and that it would be “harmful.”

Justice Clarence Thomas testified during his 1991 confirmation hearing that he had no objection as long as it was unobtrusive. In testimony to the House in 2006, however, Thomas said having cameras “runs the risk of undermining the manner in which we consider the cases.”

Justice Stephen Breyer expressed openness to cameras during his July 1994 confirmation hearing. But a decade later, he cited the O.J. Simpson trial as a cause for concern. In a December 2005 C-SPAN interview, he said, “The best reason against it is the problem that we could become a symbol since we are the Supreme Court, and if it was in our court, it would be in every court in the country, criminal cases included.”

Related: Voters Have Views on Kavanaugh but Few Facts

Justice Samuel Alito testified at his 2006 confirmation hearing that he would keep an open mind and noted that he had argued in favor of televised arguments at the federal appeals court in Philadelphia, where he was serving at the time. The following year, he expressed doubt during an interview with the Associated Press that there would be much interest.

“If our arguments were on television, we’d face some very stiff competition because there is already a surfeit of programming for court aficionados,” he said.

Not all justices have revised their positions after taking the bench. Justice Elena Kagan expressed support during her 2010 confirmation hearing. During a speech the following year at the Aspen Institute, she said that it was “such a shame, actually, that only 200 people a day can get to see it and then a bunch of other people can read about it. Because reading about it is not the same experience as actually seeing.”

Rosenblatt, of PSB, said the public overwhelmingly supports cameras.

“I’m not imagining this will be the next ‘American Idol,’ where everyone will be sitting around watching it,” he said. “But it would be good for American democracy.”

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