Cameras in the Supreme Court

We had a wonderful day-long series of panels centered on the Peabody Award winning SCOTUSblog on Monday. I will admit that I am a fanboy of the Supremes – there’s something so enigmatic about them, so powerful. Better than any Harry Potter sequel.

As we all know, there are no cameras – still or video – allowed in the courtroom during either arguments or decisions. Unless you’re one of the lucky few who gets a day pass or are part of the approved media, you’ll never get to see inside the courtroom itself.

But, as University of Georgia School of Law Professor Sonja West discovered, there have been two photographs made inside the courtroom, both in the 1930s. Prof. West was one of the panel moderators and a reference was made to these two images – very happy that she got them back into the wild in this 2012 article.

As we sat at lunch, several colleagues and I discussed cameras in the courts, something I’ve long supported and fought for. We have a constitutional right to an open court process, cameras are a logical extension of that.

But when it comes to the Supreme Court, I’m waffling. I want to see the oral arguments, to see the body language that goes with the tone (which you can get from the weekly audio postings). But as for the decisions … I’m not so sure there.

And this will be heresy to many of my colleagues, but I think there’s a good argument to be made that the delivery of the decision should be as sterile as possible, so only the decision is focused upon and not the delivery of it. It is the words that carry the weight of law, not the tone.

As many of the panelists noted, the Supreme Court is an incremental court, rarely making big changes in the law. I suspect it will be many, many years before cameras are allowed in, if ever.

And then the enigma will be lessened, I guess.

Mark E. Johnson

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