Skip to main content

Justices, let cameras into the court

By Doug Kendall and Tom Donnelly, Special to CNN
March 22, 2013 -- Updated 1241 GMT (2041 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • The Supreme Court will hear two important cases on gay rights next week
  • Doug Kendall, Tom Donnelly: Justices should allow cameras inside the courtroom
  • They say court coverage tends to be focused on sound bites from justices already
  • Kendall, Donnelly: Court has nothing to lose by permitting all Americans to see it in action

Editor's note: Doug Kendall is president and founder of Constitutional Accountability Center, a progressive public interest law firm and think tank. Tom Donnelly is counsel and message director at the center.

(CNN) -- With two important cases on gay rights and marriage equality slated for oral arguments in the Supreme Court next week, Americans of all stripes are participating in a national debate over this emotionally charged issue -- on the Internet, on television, in our leading newspapers and around countless dinner tables.

Despite this interest, only a handful of people will get to see these historic arguments -- those who show up to the courtroom next Tuesday and Wednesday. This is the result of the Supreme Court's longstanding policy prohibiting cameras inside the courtroom.

The court's main reason for banning cameras -- as Justices Stephen Breyer and Anthony Kennedy reminded us recently at a congressional hearing -- is there would be an increased risk the justices' questions and comments would be taken out of context and then played (and replayed) on the news or, worse yet, lampooned on "The Colbert Report."

Doug Kendall
Doug Kendall
Tom Donnelly
Tom Donnelly

This would be a completely valid concern if it weren't for the fact that it's happening already. As the justices well know, reporters, columnists, cartoonists and late-night comedians already extract the juiciest sound bites from oral arguments, sometimes taking them out of context and blowing them up into big stories. Indeed, such sound bites often dominate the media's coverage of the Supreme Court.

For evidence of this, look no further than Justice Antonin Scalia's remark from the court's oral argument in the case of Shelby County v. Holder. Scalia suggested the Voting Rights Act of 1965 had survived only because of the self-perpetuating power of "racial entitlements" -- a comment that generated countless news stories, editorials, op-eds and political cartoons, to say nothing of parodies on satirical shows such as "Saturday Night Live" and "The Daily Show."

Or, better yet, consider Justice Clarence Thomas' decision in January to tell a joke during oral argument -- breaking his seven-year streak of silence and, in the process, becoming front-page news. Does anyone, other than the closest court-watcher, even remember the name of that case or the issues it presented?

Become a fan of CNNOpinion
Stay up to date on the latest opinion, analysis and conversations through social media. Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion and follow us @CNNOpinion on Twitter. We welcome your ideas and comments.



Or, take the constant plight of Kennedy, who commentators tend to assume is the decisive vote in each of the court's most important cases. His every question, word, sigh and hiccup becomes a key part of how cases are covered in the media, as everyone scrambles for possible clues for how Kennedy might vote. Needless to say -- and as Kennedy well knows -- such predictions are often inaccurate.

Sometimes, the focus on sound bites is entirely appropriate.

Scalia's characterization of the Voting Rights Act was offensive, and it deserved to be national news. Furthermore, it's important to report potentially revealing comments from the court's swing justice.

But more often than not, the media coverage of the court is already focused on sound bites, which sometimes get taken out of context. Therefore, the Supreme Court might as well open up and let all Americans experience the majesty of its hearings -- an experience that can be captured only by attending an argument in person or by watching an argument unfold live in one's living room or on one's laptop.

As lawyers who have been to dozens of Supreme Court hearings, we can confidently say that there's nothing that the federal government does that's more impressive than the high-quality debates that occur on a daily basis before the Supreme Court.

The American public would be astonished at the skill of the advocates, the force of the questions and the overall level at which legal issues are debated before our high court. If only they could see these arguments in real time, in their entirety.

Since media coverage of the high court already focuses on the trite at the expense of the court's majesty, it makes sense to remove the media filter. Exposing the American public to the fullness of Supreme Court arguments by permitting cameras in the courtroom would be a service rather than hindrance to the judiciary.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter.

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Doug Kendall and Tom Donnelly.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
September 13, 2014 -- Updated 1620 GMT (0020 HKT)
Joe Torre and Esta Soler say much has been achieved since a landmark anti-violence law was passed.
September 12, 2014 -- Updated 2055 GMT (0455 HKT)
David Wheeler wonders: If Scotland votes to secede, can America take its place and rejoin England?
September 12, 2014 -- Updated 2207 GMT (0607 HKT)
Jane Stoever: Society must grapple with a culture in which 1 in 3 teen girls and women suffer partner violence.
September 12, 2014 -- Updated 2036 GMT (0436 HKT)
World-famous physicist Stephen Hawking recently said the world as we know it could be obliterated instantaneously. Meg Urry says fear not.
September 12, 2014 -- Updated 2211 GMT (0611 HKT)
Bill Clinton's speech accepting the Democratic nomination for president in 1992 went through 22 drafts. But he always insisted on including a call to service.
September 12, 2014 -- Updated 2218 GMT (0618 HKT)
Joe Amon asks: What turns a few cases of disease into thousands?
September 12, 2014 -- Updated 1922 GMT (0322 HKT)
A Scottish vote for independence next week could trigger wave of separatist tension in Europe, says Frida Ghitis.
September 12, 2014 -- Updated 2212 GMT (0612 HKT)
You couldn't call him a "Bond villain" in the grand context of Dr. No or Auric Goldfinger. They were twisted visionaries of apocalypse whose ideas were to be played out at humanity's expense.
September 12, 2014 -- Updated 1705 GMT (0105 HKT)
As a Latina activist I was hurt to hear the President would delay executive action to keep undocumented immigrants with no criminal record from getting deported.
September 11, 2014 -- Updated 1721 GMT (0121 HKT)
Sally Kohn says bombing ISIS will worsen instability in Iraq and strengthen radical ideology in terrorist groups.
September 11, 2014 -- Updated 2224 GMT (0624 HKT)
Stevan Weine says the key is to stop young people from acquiring radicalized beliefs in the first place.
September 11, 2014 -- Updated 1730 GMT (0130 HKT)
Analysts weigh in on the president's plans for addressing the threat posed by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.
September 11, 2014 -- Updated 1227 GMT (2027 HKT)
US Currency is seen in this January 30, 2001 image. AFP PHOTO/Karen BLEIER (Photo credit should read KAREN BLEIER/AFP/Getty Images)
Lisa Gilbert says a million people have asked the SEC to make corporations disclose political contributions.
September 11, 2014 -- Updated 0455 GMT (1255 HKT)
Christi Paul says unless you've walked in an abused woman's shoes, don't judge her, help her get answers to the right questions: Why does he get to hit her? And why does nobody do anything to stop him?
September 10, 2014 -- Updated 1932 GMT (0332 HKT)
Mel Robbins says several other NFL players arrested recently in domestic violence are back on the field. Roger Goodell has shown he is clueless on abuse. He must go.
September 10, 2014 -- Updated 1759 GMT (0159 HKT)
Newt Gingrich says President Obama has a remarkable opportunity Wednesday night to mobilize support for a coalition against ISIS.
September 11, 2014 -- Updated 0041 GMT (0841 HKT)
The Texas senator says Obama should seek congressional authorization for a major bombing campaign vs. ISIS.
September 11, 2014 -- Updated 1327 GMT (2127 HKT)
Artist Prune Nourry's project reinterprets the terracotta warriors in an exhibition about gender preference in China.
September 10, 2014 -- Updated 1336 GMT (2136 HKT)
The Apple Watch is on its way. Jeff Yang asks: Are we ready to embrace wearables technology at last?
ADVERTISEMENT