Gavel Grab

Essay: TV Would Boost, Not Lower, High Court's Stature

In a new essay, veteran Supreme Court watcher Tony Mauro dissects the “myth of Supreme Court exceptionalism” and finds it wanting as a reason for barring TV cameras in the nation’s highest courtroom.

Mauro’s commentary in The National Law Journal is entitled “Let the Cameras Roll.” The Supreme Court, unlike almost every other public institution, Mauro writes, has resisted for years the ”successive winds of change brought by radio, television and the Internet” while relying on a myth that it is unique.

“We operate on a different time line, a different chronology. We speak a different grammar,” Justice Anthony Kennedy responded to members of Congress who had asked about lifting the camera ban.

When the high court’s work is so largely hidden from public view, “[T]he Court is allowed to deprive the public of an educational feast,” Mauro maintains. He argues that the court’s view of its uniqueness doesn’t justify a courtroom camera ban:

“Although cameras might, and probably do, distort the behavior of elected officials bent on pleasing their constituents, they should have little negative effect on contemplative, life-tenured judges who insist they are apolitical. If they are truly independent and different, one would think that Supreme Court justices should be uniquely inattentive to the presence of cameras and should be able to carry on undisturbed.

“And if the Supreme Court has unique worldwide impact, as [Chief Justice John} Roberts said, then why should its work not be televised? Using the Court’s global influence as an argument for invisibility seems contradictory, unless Roberts is suggesting that the Court’s stature would somehow shrink by becoming more visible. I would argue the opposite. When the Supreme Court is under intense scrutiny — whether during the 1993 release of the Thurgood Marshall papers, or in the context of controversial decisions ranging from Snyder v. Phelps to Bush v. Gore — the Court usually emerges favorably as an institution that strives to be fair and get it right, even if the result is unpopular.”

The justices have had more than six decades to think about how permitting cameras in the courtroom might affect their institution. During these decades, the court has become much more muscular in American society.

“It is unique and exceptional,” Mauro suggests, “but not in ways that should make it invisible.”


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