Why the Supreme Court really doesn’t allow cameras

Squeaky chairs and all...

All of this recent talk about the Supreme Court and Obamacare has reminded me of my experience at the Supreme Court.

In Fall of 2010, I took “Introduction to Constitutional Law: Civil Liberties,” at Claremont McKenna College with Professor Ralph Rossum. While I had always been somewhat interested in the Supreme Court of the United States, or SCOTUS, I had never spent so much time intensely focusing on its procedure and casework.

After listening to quite a few hours of oral arguments, reading a number of amicus curiae briefs, and even doing a “moot court” session in the class, I felt that it was time for me to actually see an argument. I’ve been the court before, as have many who grew up in the DC area with an interest in politics, but I had never seen it in session. So, I decided to wake up early and check it out.

I won’t go into tons of details about waiting around to get in, but I’ll say this: It’s cold, and it feels like forever.

When I finally got into the courtroom, seated towards the back, the arguments had already begun. Seeing the courtroom full of people and in session is quite different from viewing it on other days; a sort of tension exists in the room, and it becomes much more solemn (that is, except for when Scalia acts the comic).

Beyond the high ceilings, the lawyers, and the imposing number of legal minds in the room, the most striking thing I found was the posture of the Justices. While the room and the name of SCOTUS creates an air of pomp and circumstance, the Justices themselves do not.

You see, the chairs that the Justices sit in lean back very far. So far, in fact, that for a few moments I thought Clarence Thomas was going to fall out of his seat. While leaning back in the squeaky chairs, many of the Justices seemed bored to death, rubbing their eyes, covering their faces, and twiddling their thumbs.

Did I mention that those chairs lean really far back?

Although I’m sure that the Justices were closely paying attention to the arguments, especially based on the questions they asked of the lawyers, it wouldn’t make for good TV.

So while I would love to have video to capture the reactions of boredom that I saw in that chamber, it now makes a lot of sense why the arguments aren’t televised. Claim all you want that it’s protect the institution from being a spectacle, but this might be another reason. It could have just been a really boring case, but it certainly wouldn’t play well to the public.

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About Jonathan Rice

Fulbright Fellow, Pitzer College alum, and communicator passionate about telling stories that make an impact.

Posted on 04/02/2012, in Commentary, General, The DC Area and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. I’m sure there is an element to truth here. With the spectacle argument, all you have to do is look at Rove’s PAC and how they immediately used the audio to run a political ad. I would guess that most SC justices would rather not star in too many of those either.

    • Great point about the recent PAC ads.

      I doubt anyone ever expected that this was how oral arguments/debate from the Court would be used to sway public opinion.

      Still, I do sometimes wonder if the transparency of seeing a broadcast of each of the cases would be useful..

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