A Camera in the Court

Quick -- what does Chief Justice John Roberts look like? Don't know? Don't worry, you're not alone. Two-thirds of Americans can't name a single Supreme Court justice, let alone pick one out of a crowd. Does this matter? Of course. The people have a right to see the judges who make the final decisions on life, death, war and taxes in our country.

Unlike Congress or the White House, no cameras are allowed inside the Supreme Court. Every few years C-SPAN dutifully submits a request to the Chief Justice for access and every few years that request is summarily dismissed.

The Court has offered a series of legitimate reasons for banning TV cameras in their hallowed chamber. The primary concern is that cable news and network television will take elements of oral arguments out of context and misrepresent the Court to the general public. No doubt, that might happen. But that's a struggle both the executive and legislative branches confront every day. It also happens to be the same argument some members of Congress made before C-SPAN began their coverage in the early 1980s. Why does the Supreme Court think it deserves special shielding from our sometimes-messy democracy?

At the White House, reporters work less than 100 feet from the Oval Office and follow the president with a video camera every time he steps foot outside the building. In Congress, C-SPAN shows every word spoken on the floors of both chambers and provides wall-to-wall coverage of committee hearings. But no one in the world has ever seen video of one of the great constitutional exercises in our nation -- oral arguments before the Supreme Court. With all due respect to the Court, audio recordings released days later just don't cut it.

The Court loves to declare itself a "co-equal" branch of government, but they all too often refuse to accept the critical responsibilities that define the public trust -- transparency and accountability. It is the people who pay the salaries of the justices and their staff and the people who built the beautiful building in which they deliberate. Why can't all the people take a look inside?

Surely if ESPN has seven channels, C-SPAN can add one more. Imagine the possibilities of cameras in the Court. Law students and lawyers across the county could watch the cases they've been studying in real time -- and learn how to advocate effectively at the highest level. As a law student at Georgetown, I've had the opportunity to sit in on multiple oral arguments over the last three years, but why should my legal colleagues across the country be at a disadvantage in our modern world just because of geography? More importantly, televised oral arguments would allow Americans to learn about this opaque arm of their government while the world could see the power of the rule of law in action every day.

Some critics argue that the proceedings of the Court are too complex to be of interest. I'm sorry -- but that line of reasoning smacks of judicial elitism. If people can't understand arguments about health care, immigration and same-sex marriage then there's a problem with the argument -- not the people. No doubt the legalese of stare decisis, ERISA challenges and incorporation doctrine will be lost on the non-lawyers out there (and let's be honest, they are probably lost on most lawyers, too) - but that's not a reason to shut people out. Congress broadcasts its arcane floor procedure and debates on reconciliation motions. And yet C-SPAN has approximately 20,000 viewers during any given hour. That's not Game of Thrones-style numbers but it's still about 19,800 more people than can fit inside the cozy main chamber of the Supreme Court.

Of course the real reason the Court won't allow cameras isn't about grandstanding or complexity. The truth is that the justices want to retain their anonymity. They like being unrecognizable. And given the 24-hour news cycle world we live in, who can blame them? I have to imagine the last thing Justice Breyer wants is to go to the grocery store and have a fellow shopper ask for a selfie. But the reality is that the justices of the Supreme Court are public figures. They chose to accept a nomination to the highest court in the land -- and in a democracy that means being accountable and available to the people you serve.

In 1913, future Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis wrote an article in Harper's Weekly entitled "What Publicity Can Do." Brandeis advocated for publicity as a means of correcting wrongs, creating accountability and ensuring the people's trust was never abused. He wrote, famously, "sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants." A television camera light isn't quite as purifying as the sun, but it is the best tool we have available. A camera in the Court won't solve our problems, and it may create a few new ones. But it's time all the branches of government start playing by the same rules. Before the next term is called into session on the first Monday in October, I hope the Chief Justice and his colleagues heed the words of their predecessor. I'll be watching. I hope you will too.