Cameras in the Supreme Court of the United States

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The Supreme Court of the United States does not allow cameras into the courtroom when the court is in session, which is the subject of much debate.[1] Although the Court has never allowed cameras in its courtroom, it does make audiotapes of oral arguments and opinions available to the public.[2]


Congressional action[edit]

In 2009, Pennsylvania Senator Arlen Specter, and seven co-sponsors introduced a resolution to express the sense of Congress that sessions of the Court should be televised.[3] In 2009, Specter also introduced a bill that would require open sessions of the Court to be televised.[4] Upon introducing his bill to require televising the Supreme Court of the United States proceedings, Arlen Specter announced, "[t]he Supreme Court makes pronouncements on constitutional and federal law that have direct impacts on the rights of Americans. Those rights would be substantially enhanced by televising the oral arguments of the Court so that the public can see and hear the issues presented." [5] Eight U.S. Senators co-sponsored Spector's resolution.[3]

Ted Poe, R-TX2, introduced a related bill in the House of Representatives in January 2009.[6] The only exception to televising the Court under this legislation would be if a majority of justices decided that "allowing such coverage in a particular case would violate the due process rights of any of the parties involved."[4]


Supporters of Specter's proposal reason that other government proceedings are already televised, including sessions of both the House of Representative and the Senate, covered most frequently by C-SPAN.[7] By televising the Court, they argue that Americans would have more access to the most important institution in the U.S. judiciary, which would result in a more open and transparent government.[2] Bruce Peabody of Fairleigh Dickinson University contends that televising the Supreme Court of the United States proceedings can change the way Americans view public policy by bringing greater attention to the Court.[8] A 2010 New York Times editorial states that public access to the court would give Americans the opportunity to get a closer look at how a powerful branch of government operates. It adds that the televising the Court would hold presidents accountable for the justices they nominate. The editorial reasons, "[r]ight now, we see the justices during their confirmation hearings and rarely after that."[9]

During her confirmation hearing in 2009, Justice Sonia Sotomayor indicated that she is open to the idea of televising court proceedings, stating, "I have had positive experiences with cameras. When I have been asked to join experiments of using cameras in the courtroom, I have participated. I have volunteered." [10]


Opponents of Specter's proposal believe that requiring the proceedings of the Supreme Court of the United States to be televised is a threat to judicial independence and, thus, the separation of powers. In addition, several justices of the Court have objected to the proposed legislation, including Justice Anthony Kennedy who argues that the measure would not align with the "etiquette" and "deference" that should "apply between branches."[11] Furthermore, some justices believe televising the proceedings would change the way they act in the courtroom. Justice Clarence Thomas also contends that televising Court proceedings would reduce the level of anonymity that justices now have and could raise security concerns.[2] Opponents also believe that television coverage would also take away from the mystery of the court and cause the public to misinterpret the Court and its processes.[2]

Scholars have also considered the constitutionality of televising the Supreme Court.[8][11][12][13]

Public opinion[edit]

In March 2010, Fairleigh Dickinson University's PublicMind Poll found in a national poll that more than 60% of voters think that televising the Supreme Court of the United States proceedings would be "good for democracy."[14][15] 26% think that televising the proceedings would "undermine the authority of the court." [9]

Voters have mixed opinions on the effect of television coverage on court decisions. While 45% say that televising Court's proceedings would be good "because the judges would consider public opinion more" in making decisions, 31% say TV would be bad because justices would consider public opinion too much. 25% say are not sure or say that televising the Court would have no effect on its legal decisions.[7] While a majority of voters presently watch government proceedings infrequently if at all, half of voters (50%) say they would watch the Supreme Court of the United States' proceedings sometimes or regularly if they were televised. Only 10% say they’d never watch the court.[7]

Dr. Peter Woolley, director of the FDU poll, said, “Voters are certainly curious about the court, which is both powerful and largely out of the public eye. After the novelty wears off, the primary audience might be lawyers and lobbyists, rather than any broad swath of voters. Most voters will only see it when commercial media select the most controversial bits and pieces.” [7] But Peabody disagreed, “The rationale for televising the court is not to guarantee the public will watch it, but to give democracy’s citizens more opportunities to educate themselves. It is unlikely people will know more about the court by seeing it less.” [7]

Noting the FDU poll, the editors of The New York Times subsequently opined that televising the Court "would allow Americans to see for themselves how an extremely powerful part of their government works" and "allow voters to hold presidents accountable for the quality of justices they nominate.[9] In turn, Diana Schaub of Loyola University criticized the Times for insisting that the justices of the Supreme Court ought to be “YouTubed” like everyone else. She contends that the Court is already an open book, the most transparent branch of government. Rather than issuing only a verdict, Schaub states, the Court justifies its rulings with detailed opinions that are immediately available to the public. She further notes that only a small slice of the Court’s work would be revealed on camera if televising oral arguments were required, adding that the “un-telegenic activities” of the Court, which include choosing cases, poring over briefs, writing memos and drafts, and actually deciding cases would not be seen. Furthermore, Schaub declares that the only way for the public to truly have access to the Court is to “join the justices in the difficult work of legal interpretation.” She states that most Americans would not be willing or even capable of doing this.[16]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Roth, Gabe (July 25, 2015). "Why doesn't the Supreme Court have cameras?". MSNBC. Retrieved 2 April 2016. 
  2. ^ a b c d Tong, Lorraine H. "Televising Supreme Court and Other Federal Court Proceedings: Legislation and Issues" Congressional Research Service of the Library of Congress (November 8, 2006)
  3. ^ a b S.RES.339 on the Library of Congress website
  4. ^ a b S.446 on the Library of Congress website
  5. ^ "Specter Introduces Resolution to Televise Supreme Court Proceedings" press release (November 5, 2009)
  6. ^ H.R.429 on the Library of Congress website
  7. ^ a b c d e Fairleigh Dickinson University's PublicMind Poll "Public Says Televising Court Is Good for Democracy" press release (March 9, 2010)
  8. ^ a b Peabody, Bruce "Legislating Supreme Court TV" Christian Science Monitor (September 28, 2006)
  9. ^ a b c Your Reality TV New York Times editorial (March 13, 2010)
  10. ^ Cameras in the Court on the C-SPAN website
  11. ^ a b Peabody, Bruce "Constitutional Etiquette and the Fate of 'Supreme Court TV'" Michigan Law Review (ndg)
  12. ^ Peabody, Bruce and Gant, Scott. "Debate: Congress's Power to Compel the Televising of Supreme Court Proceedings" University of Pennsylvania Law Review Vol. 156:46 2007
  13. ^ Peabody, Bruce "Supreme Court TV: Televising the least accountable branch?,' 33 J. Legis. 144, 147-148. (2007)
  14. ^ "The Morning Wrap" on The BLT: the Blog of Legal Times (March 9, 2010)
  15. ^ Woolley, Peter. "Washington Journal: Supreme Court Proceedings on Television" video on the C-SPAN website (March 9, 2010)
  16. ^ Schaub, Diana. "Supreme Court TV?" Baltimore Sun (March 24, 2010)

External links[edit]