Several U.S. Supreme Court justices, quoted as steadfastly opposing cameras recording attorneys’ arguments before them, stubbornly hold to beliefs that are as outmoded as the horse and buggy.
Sens. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, and Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., have once again introduced a bill in Congress, S. 829, to allow cameras in federal courtrooms — where they are still banned, even though all 50 states allow cameras in state courtrooms in some way.
The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press reported last week that in a rare public appearance, three justices — Stephen Breyer, Sandra Day O’Connor and Antonin Scalia — all spoke against allowing cameras into the high court chamber. The committee said an NBC report quoted Scalia as criticizing how the news media would treat information thus obtained.
“For every one person who sees it. . . gavel to gavel so that they can really understand what the court is about. . . 10,000 will see 15-second takeouts on network news, which I guarantee you will be uncharacteristic of what the court does,” he said.
Scalia appeared to be wishing for a situation by which he or any other government official could control what people should see, hear or read in the media. But that’s not the government’s function. The First Amendment gives the public and the press the right to decide what to say or not say.
In the mid-1990s, an experiment allowing cameras into a handful of federal courts for several months was found by federal officials to have been successful, with no disruption of decorum in courtrooms. But attempts to allow cameras in all federal courts have since failed. S. 829, introduced April 18, is Grassley and Schumer’s third attempt at sponsoring legislation to effect it; it is co-sponsored by nine other senators of both major political parties. It gives discretion to federal judges, similar to that allowed their state counterparts, to ban cameras in specific instances for specific reasons.
But in the main the presumption is that the public has the right to gain access to the workings of the judiciary through media coverage using modern technology. Technology merely improves the existing right of access. It should not be treated as something apart, because to limit technology is to limit access.
Congress should reject Luddism among some jurists and grant properly restricted camera access in federal courtrooms.