Cameras in the courtroom: Will SCOTUS ever go live online?

In an age where setting up a livestream to the Web and the rest of the networked world is as easy as holding up a smartphone and making a few taps, the United States Supreme Court appears more uniformly opposed to adding cameras in the courtroom than ever.

SupremeCourt.gov provides online access to opinionsordersdocket, court calendarstranscriptsschedulesrulesvisitors’ guidescase-handling guides and press releases and even adopted responsive Web design for in 2012.

As Adam Liptak reported for the New York Times today, despite a trend towards cameras in the rest of the legal system of the United States and in higher courts around the globe, the Supreme Court still rejects video coverage.

Moreover, the two newest members of the court, Associate Justices Sotomayor and Kagan, have shifted their positions towards opposing the addition of cameras since taking the bench.

As a result, the vast majority of Americans will only be able to listen to oral arguments, read transcripts, and learn about verdicts in the somewhat bizarre fashion that has emerged in the absence of live video for the Supreme Court.

There’s no liveblogging or tweeting from within the Supreme Court’s hearing room either, which leads to the beautiful mashup of old and new media below:

 

Are cameras in the courtroom better or worse for justice?

As Liptak reported, the question of adding cameras to the Supreme Court is considered by two new papers in the Brigham Young University Law Review.

IIT Chicago-Kent law professor Nancy Marder, the author of “The Conundrum of Cameras in the Courtroom,” is opposed to adding cameras, essentially arguing that status quo in SCOTUS and lower federal courts remain in place:

Federal courts should post transcripts and audio recordings of court proceedings online, but stop short of permitting cameras in the courtroom. Federal judges need to consider the power of the image, the omnipresence of the camera, the spread of images via the Web, and the current lack of a “technology etiquette” that will guide the use of courtroom images on the Web. Until that etiquette develops, federal judges should take incremental steps to make courts more accessible, but should not allow cameras in federal courts, particularly in federal district courts.

As I suggested to Dan Diamond last year, it’s worth considering how courts in other nations have embraced the Web. He did exactly that, in Forbes:

For example, Australia’s High Court makes decisions available as text files, not just PDFs, and has a prominent link to daily transcripts. Canada’s Court offers webcasts and a front-page link to statistics on ten years’ worth of decisions.

And the United Kingdom’s Supreme Court website doesn’t just offer a link to live, streaming video – it even has a Twitter feed, too.

Brazil, in fact, has been broadcasting all of the judicial and administrative meetings of its Supreme Court live on television since 2002.

University of Oregon journalism professor Kyu Ho Youm, went further down this line of inquiry in his new paper surveying the use of cameras in supreme courts and international human rights courts, concluding that the concerns of justices abroad have been allayed by the outcomes:

Foreign and international courts’ consistently positive experience
with allowing electronic media access to courtrooms should be a useful
guide for the justices of the U.S. Supreme Court. Nearly all the major
assumptions, worries, and concerns that several Justices cite in opposing
cameras are unlikely to be substantiated as learned from the real-life
experience of justices of the Supreme Courts of England and Canada

Given the example of other nations, will the U.S. follow? As Liptak reported in the New York Times, Chief Justice John Roberts enumerated several ways the court has adopted technology but expressed reservations about cameras in particular.

“Cameras present all sorts of challenges that these other areas don’t,” said the chief justice, referring to making audio recordings and transcripts of hearings available. “I’m not going to go through the whole debate, it’s a fairly common one. We worry about the impact on lawyers. I worry about the impact on judges.”

His complete comments upon adding cameras to the Supreme Court in a 2011 conversation with Judge J. Harvie Wilkinson III at the Fourth Circuit Judicial Conference in the video excerpt embedded below.

“It would be interesting to hear what government institutions people think function better, now that they’re on television,” said the chief justice, “than if they’re not.”

Update: Justices Breyer and Kennedy recently were asked about this issue in Congress. Here’s their response, via Nancy Scola:

C-SPAN: “Justices Anthony Kennedy & Stephen Breyer discuss having television cameras in the Supreme Court. They do so in response to a question from Rep. Mike Quigley (D-IL).

Alexander B. Howard is a DC-based a technology writer and editor. Previously, he was the Washington Correspondent at O'Reilly Media, where he covered the voices, technologies and issues that matter in the intersection of government, technology and society. If you're feeling social, you can follow him on Twitter, like him on Facebook or circle him on Google Plus In addition to corresponding for the O’Reilly Radar, he has contributed to the Huffington Post, Govfresh, Mashable, ReadWriteWeb, National Journal, The Atlantic, CBS News and Forbes. He graduated from Colby College with a bachelor's degree in biology and sociology. Currently, he is a resident of the District of Columbia, where he lives with his greyhound, wife, power tools, plants and growing collection of cast iron pans, many of which are frequently used to pursue his passion for good cooking.

About Alex Howard

Alexander B. Howard is a DC-based a technology writer and editor. Previously, he was the Washington Correspondent at O'Reilly Media, where he covered the voices, technologies and issues that matter in the intersection of government, technology and society. If you're feeling social, you can follow him on Twitter, like him on Facebook or circle him on Google Plus In addition to corresponding for the O’Reilly Radar, he has contributed to the Huffington Post, Govfresh, Mashable, ReadWriteWeb, National Journal, The Atlantic, CBS News and Forbes. He graduated from Colby College with a bachelor's degree in biology and sociology. Currently, he is a resident of the District of Columbia, where he lives with his greyhound, wife, power tools, plants and growing collection of cast iron pans, many of which are frequently used to pursue his passion for good cooking.

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