A Picture Is Worth

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

At Stake

The Cameras in the Courtroom Act – is it a slapstick vaudeville routine?  No, it’s legislation Congress is considering that would require the Supreme Court to install television cameras and allow broadcasting of oral arguments.  The Court already distributes transcripts of the arguments, which, by the way, are open to the public, with limited seating space.  Whether Congress can and should force the Court to permit video of its open sessions is for another forum – what’s noteworthy for us is the implicit beliefs the Justices and supporters and critics of the CitCA have regarding the difference between words and video. 

Remember, transcripts from the arguments are available on the internet, often the next day.  Justice Kagan, a supporter of cameras in the Supreme Court, described her impressions before becoming a justice: “Everybody was so prepared, so smart, so obviously deeply concerned about getting to the right answer . . . . if everybody could see this, it would make people feel so good about this branch of government and how it’s operating.”  So Justice Kagan believes that nobody can read?  That the intelligence and preparation won’t be evident from the transcript?  Or that words in general lack the power of video?  Some combination of these, likely, from a member of the Court that writes opinions thousands of words long and has huge battles over what words mean and even what methods to use in interpretation.

Nancy Marder, a professor at Kent Law School here in Chicago and former Supreme Court clerk, opposes cameras because they will make attorneys and Justices more guarded, more concerned about their images, and that little snippets will “go viral.”  Again, the assumptions seem to be that nobody bothers to read the transcripts, or the articles that quote from them, and that words are nothing to worry about anyway.

My own view is that it’s much ado about very little.  The Illinois Supreme Court already has cameras in its courtroom, and not even my mom has watched my arguments there.  Appellate arguments are just not very gripping. The U.S. Supreme Court has more high-profile cases, but beyond the brief clip here and there, cameras in the courtroom won’t change much.  The People’s Court will get much better ratings.  And if I’m wrong, well, it’s just words, right?