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The Double-Edged Sword of Legislation for Greater Access to The Supreme Court

What would the cost of an increase in Supreme Court access come at?

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By Willie Johnson | USA

In today’s world of instant communication, the ability to watch events live on television or online has become the norm. Whether they be sports games, debates, or even just a piece of someone’s daily life, people are accustomed to being granted access to situations they can’t attend in person. The one significant institution that still goes against this practice, however, is SCOTUS (Supreme Court Of The United States), which has banned the broadcasting or taking photographs of court proceedings. The conflicting opinions of both sides have naturally created controversy, and in recent years many in the legislative branch claiming to represent public opinion have opposed what is seen as an archaic rule without realizing its true importance.

The specific regulations outlined in Rule 53 of the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure states that “Except as otherwise provided by a statute or these rules, the court must not permit the taking of photographs in the courtroom during judicial proceedings or the broadcasting of judicial proceedings from the courtroom.” As many Supreme Court justices would tell you themselves, this rule protects two very important things the integrity of the republic and the integrity of the Supreme Court itself. The proposals in the past to change this standard, such as that of Pennsylvania Senator Arlen Specter in 2009, have threatened both of these things and failed to understand the separation of powers. The truth is, any attempts by one branch to change another is incredibly detrimental.

Although it seems unlikely that allowing cameras in the courtroom would threaten the integrity of the republic, any legislation proposing to change the current procedure would seriously upset the system of checks and balances. The separate branches of our federal government exist to enforce checks and balances, but they can’t outright tell each other what to do. In such a bill, for example, the legislative branch would impose the requirement of broadcasting proceedings on the judicial branch. This is a move that would go against judicial review by enacting a change to the supreme court without the intervention of the judicial branch itself. The authority of Congress would lose its limits if given this power, and many other cases of overreach would occur in the future. Any legislation that attempts to control the supreme court simply throws off the balance of the federal government.

The integrity of the Supreme court itself is threatened by these proposals because of the threat they pose to the behavior of the justices themselves. If televised, it is likely that justices would choose statements and responses that are better ‘comebacks’ than actual arguments. This would introduce an insidious dynamic in the courtroom that would increase entertainment value but interfere with the effectiveness of the court itself. Playing to the cameras is human nature, after all; behavior has been proven to be affected by the awareness that one is being watched. Like most common people, former Justice Antonin Scalia was in favor of broadcasting proceedings when he was first appointed, but changed his mind after seeing the inner-workings of the court. The current facelessness of the Supreme Court maintains a level of respectability and keeps it from coming to resemble a reality TV show.

Next time you see a proposal to allow cameras in the supreme court that claims to support transparency, public opinion, or any other well-intentioned reason,  keep in mind that it would be harmful to the integrity of both the supreme court and the republic itself. It would threaten to establish a dangerous precedent and change the dynamic of the federal government, all while stripping the court of its virtues.

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  1. Well written, I agree there is too much at stake. And imagine the proceedings being watched by many people who have no clue about legal processes… it would become yet another outlet of political one lines instead of what it is set out to do..

    Reply

  2. Very well stated Willie Johnson!!

    Reply

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