Justice Sotomayor Doesn't Want Cameras In The Supreme Court Because Americans Won't Understand

from the citizen-mushroom,-reporting-for-inactive-non-duty dept

This adminstration is having a hard time reaching its goal of being the “transparentest place on earth,” what with its executive orders, state secrets and a whole lot of “as you were” in reference (deference?) to existing Bush-era policies. To make matters worse, Obama's appointees are proving themselves to be “team players” and blocking out much of the remaining sunlight.

Justice Sotomayor is pitching in with the “new transparency” (now available in black, charcoal and midnight slate!), reversing field on her previously stated opinions on cameras in the courtroom.

At her confirmation hearings in 2009, she said she was in favor of letting citizens see their government at work. “I have had positive experiences with cameras,” she said. “When I have been asked to join experiments of using cameras in the courtroom, I have participated. I have volunteered.”

Apparently, much like the rest of the administration, transparency is a great talking point in theory. In practice, however, it's a very different story.

She was singing a different tune a couple of weeks ago, telling Charlie Rose that most Americans would not understand what goes on at Supreme Court arguments and that there was little point in letting them try.

“I don’t think most viewers take the time to actually delve into either the briefs or the legal arguments to appreciate what the court is doing,” she said. “They speculate about, oh, the judge favors this point rather than that point. Very few of them understand what the process is, which is to play devil’s advocate.”

Now, while Sotomayor may be correct that many Americans don't understand the nuances of the Supreme Court, it's rather insulting to believe this ignorance should preclude them from observing the inner workings. After all, many Americans are ignorant of ins and outs of the entire political process, and yet, no one's suggesting (at least not legislatively) that they have their right to vote revoked. Not only that, but C-SPAN offers wall-to-wall coverage of the legislative process, something few people in their right minds would claim to understand in its entirety, but no one seems concerned that viewers drawing the wrong conclusions will somehow harm that process.

In fact, she doesn't really make an argument as to why cameras shouldn't be allowed into the courtroom. All she does is claim that the proceedings would fly over the heads of viewers. If she's concerned some of the real-time “devil's advocating” will be misconstrued, her fears are misplaced, to say the least. The public can misconstrue the intentions of the justices without a live feed, thank you very much.

And, if it's the public's understanding of the process she's worried about, wouldn't it make more sense to make the process easily accessed? It's pretty hard to increase knowledge without observation. It seems counterintuitive to dismiss the public as ignorant and think you're going to improve this by locking them out.

Unfortunately, it's not just Sotomayor making a 180 when actually faced with making a theoretical situation a reality. Justice Elena Kagan has also reversed her stance.

At her confirmation hearings in 2010, she said video coverage “would be a great thing for the institution, and more important, I think it would be a great thing for the American people.” Two years later, she said she now had “a few worries, including that people might play to the camera” and that the coverage could be misused.

Once again, we have fake fears covering for the government's natural tendency to do its “best” work behind closed doors. C-SPAN has seen its share of “playing to the camera,” and yet, the American public is still better off having access to this coverage. And, if Kagan's worried the courtroom coverage might be “misused,” she's apparently unaware that anything can be misused, whether it's press releases, public statements, speaking engagements, interviews, C-SPAN footage, etc. Worrying about potential “misuse” is an incredibly weak argument for opacity. Of course it will be misused. But it will also be beneficial to the general public. An open feed shows the whole story, which can then be used to punch holes in the arguments of those who misuse the information.

Oddly enough, the home of free speech and democracy is lagging behind countries like Canada and the UK in terms of cameras in these nations' highest courts.

The Supreme Court of the United Kingdom, which was formed in 2009, allows camera coverage. Last month, Lord Chief Justice Igor Judge, the head of the judiciary for England and Wales, announced that cameras would be allowed in appeal courts starting in October, after judges receive media training.

Lord Judge agreed with Justice Sotomayor, to a point. “I suspect John and Jane Citizen will find it incredibly dull,” he told a committee of the House of Lords. But that did not seem to him a reason to prevent them from trying to make sense of the proceedings.

Arguments in the Supreme Court of Canada have been broadcast since the mid-1990s, and more recently they have been streamed live on the Internet.

Owen M. Rees, the court’s executive legal officer, said the experience had been positive.

“The filming of the Supreme Court of Canada’s hearings has increased the public’s access to the court and its understanding of the court’s work,” he said. “Of course, each court must make its own evaluation of whether introducing cameras in the courtroom would be appropriate.”

So, we've heard the excuses (they're not actually “reasons”) presented for keeping cameras out of the Supreme Court, but what's the real reason behind this resistance to cameras in the courthouse? According to Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., the problem may be with the justices themselves.

Chief Justice Roberts said he worried about the effect that cameras would have on lawyers and, perhaps more important, on the justices, who may have less self-control than their counterparts abroad.

“We unfortunately fall into grandstanding with a couple of hundred people in the room,” the chief justice said.

If true, then the American public is being cut out of the process in order to save the justices from themselves. This is completely backwards, to say the least. If cameras provoke this sort of response from the highest court in the land, then something needs to be fixed within the court itself. Trying to place the blame on the public for a perceived lack of comprehension or tendency to misuse information is wholly disingenuous. Our Supreme Court can, and should, follow the lead of Canada and the UK and stop treating US citizens as though they have no (comprehensible) horse in this race. 

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Comments on “Justice Sotomayor Doesn't Want Cameras In The Supreme Court Because Americans Won't Understand”

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Ninja (profile) says:

Re: Vanity fail

Set up a community service where people can send in their doubts about some case they judged or some blog where experts can contribute and break down the complicated things into stuff the average joe can understand. With time the population as a whole will have acquire better understanding of the way the judicial system works. Obviously it’ll expose things like Ortiz and other absurds so they are afraid. Having greater oversight would fix a few things… In many places.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Vanity fail

They are probably afraid of extreme groups like tax enough already, heartland institute, large companies, labor unions, Rainbow/People united to save humanity and MoveOn.org. These groups have a good clout and can probably propagate some completely wrong information to a broader part of the public in an attempt to push for certain future judges.

The US system of government appointed judges can get/is getting hijacked as opposed to Canada and UK. Increasing the judges exposure will likely make them that much more political in their work.

MrWilson says:

So…because people don’t understand, they shouldn’t be given the opportunity to observe and be motivated to try to understand.

I’d like to see a lawyer use that argument in the Supreme Court and see how they react to it.

“I’m sorry, Justice Sotomayor, you won’t understand the complexity of our reasoning why corporations are people, so I’m not going to explain it to you. You should just rule in our favor because we told you it was too complicated for you to understand…”

Anonymous Coward says:

no different to 99% of the other ‘public servants’ (and i use the term extremely lightly!). spin whatever makes her sound good at election/ promotion time, then quickly back-track when it comes to actually doing what she purported to aid get her the position she holds. when you’ve got the leader of a nation saying one thing then doing the exact opposite as far as various assurances are concerned, why would a ‘lesser mortal’ do any different??
remember Fox Mulder’s saying – ‘Trust No One’! truer words spoken in fun, guys!

TheLastCzarnian (profile) says:

This is bad?

Take a look at Illinois courthouses. You can’t bring any sort of electronic device in unless you are a member of the press or a lawyer. All cellphones confiscated at the door.
The excuse is that people were sending information to other people about testimonies and identifying witnesses.
It’s also about the biggest load of BS ever.
Illinois: the model for Big Brother on the west side of the pond.

John Doe says:

We serve the government, they no longer serve us

They say power corrupts and this is the very problem with people in power. They soon view themselves as being above the rest and that the rest need lead. They also view themselves as being the ones capable of doing that leading. After all, no mere mortal could serve in a government “of the people, by the people, for the people” could they?

Thomas Jefferson said it best: “It has been said that men cannot govern themselves, so can they then govern others?”.

mockingbird (profile) says:

what bans cameras in the first place?

meaning, is there a law that says cameras can’t be present?
so, bring a camera.
if the court tries to remove the camera, claim first amendment reporters rights.
if they still ban the camera, well, there’s a lawsuit right there.
which wil likely end up in the supreme court, and wuld either allow cameras from then on, or have to give an actual reason why it would be illegal to have a camera in a public setting, doing the publics business.
if there are any reporters present in the first place, who is to say what medium they can or can not use for their reporting?
stick to the law, I think.

McCrea (profile) says:

Re: Re: what bans cameras in the first place?

As ammended in 2002, sorry I don’t know what it was before that.

“Rule 53. Courtroom Photographing and Broadcasting Prohibited

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.” — http://www.law.cornell.edu/rules/frcrmp/rule_53

Anonymous Coward says:

Groklaw says hi

“?I don?t think most viewers take the time to actually delve into either the briefs or the legal arguments to appreciate what the court is doing,? she said. ?They speculate about, oh, the judge favors this point rather than that point. Very few of them understand what the process is, which is to play devil?s advocate.?


That argument has been invalid for nearly 10 years, at least.

The Old Man in The Sea says:

You Americans have such a simple technological solution

As I understand it, you Americans have a simple technological solution. It is so easy for you to go down to the local spy shop and buy all the spy cameras and spy transmitters you need. Just do so and put the necessary bugs all over the courts and other official places of interest, record, transmit, receive and then re-transmit the proceedings as required. Keep doing this often enough and they have to stop playing their games behind closed doors.

You’ll become the police state that much quicker, then the second American Revolution of Independence can start and you can then have your new Constitution, Bill of Rights, stc. Then in another 200 years or so repeat.

G Thompson (profile) says:

Re: far left judges

I believe that you have no idea whatsoever about anything especially how to spell believe let alone the other words you misspelt leaving one to absolutely agree with why the American Education system is in dire need of a swift kick up the rear end.

And if you believe the current Justices are somehow Obama’s fault and not a problem affecting all layers of Bureaucracy dealing with Ego’s within the US you’re more a blithering idiot than your apparent lack of education suggests.

Somewhere there actually is a Village that DOESN’T miss you!

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Bias Media...

“By NOT having a camera while Supreme Court is in session, it protects the rights of those accused who are innocent until proven guilty.”

No, it does not. The defendant isn’t going to be there anyway, unless by some miracle the Supreme Court is hearing a case where the person is representing himself. If it’s a criminal case, the person has very likely already been found guilty and there has already been a TON of media coverage, anyway. Beyond that, the Constitution protects the right to a PUBLIC trial, not a private one.

“Given the behavior of FoxNews and MSNBC on how much they speculate rather than fact check. I really don’t blame Jystice Sotomayor for wanting that rule in place.”

They’re going to speculate whether the cameras are there or not. This just means they get a sound bite instead of a transcript.

Wally (profile) says:

Re: Re: Bias Media...

Sound bites on the news may create a bias in the system. Federal Grand Jurries usually are supposed to know nothing about a prior case outside of whats provided by the plantif and degendant. The more news cameras that are present..the more chance of a juror being selected whose only information on the case is speculation rather than fact.

Anonymous Coward says:

I’d like to see Supreme Court proceedings on TV once in a while…

However, if this is going to cause them to lose focus, even if they SHOULD be able to handle it and the lack is a personal failing of the judges, it’s not worth it. What they do is too important. And it’s not like there’s any REAL lack of transparency. Theirs is about the ONLY government agency that gives a well thought out, detailed, and un-redacted reason for every decision they make.

Anonymous Coward says:

Meanwhile, Brazilian Supreme court has its own, public funded channel, and also a Youtube Account. Here is a video among many concerning last year judgement of the case of “Mensal?o” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mensal?o_scandal), who took 4-5 months, and propelled the Judges of the Supreme Court to the public collective conscious.

The judge rapporteur, Mr. Joaquim Barbosa, (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Joaquim_Barbosa), who has since become the Chief Justice, has become more or less a national hero, and there is the common meme of comparing him to Batman (Because of an iconic picture taken during the case).




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