CSPAN and Sen. Chuck Grassley are pushing the Supreme Court to allow TV cameras in the court for the first time during oral argument over the Constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act.
I’m generally against allowing televised oral arguments, for pretty much the same reason most of the Justices are: it would show the court only in the most sensationalist of lights, by only reporting on its most politically charged cases. That ignores the overwhelming majority of the docket and presents a skewed vision of the Court’s purpose. It also makes the court more political–TV clips of the court would inevitably be excerpted into seconds-long sound bytes, and I have every reason to believe that networks would use that to tell their easiest, most compelling-to-the-clueless story: that the court is a radically partisan institution, making close 5-4 decisions on party lines.
And honestly, I like the element of mystery around the Court–I think it preserves the gravitas of the institution to have its official actions be its main public face, rather than the Justices-as-reality-TV-characters. It strikes me as an institution that benefits from such mystery, especially looking at what happened to the Presidency after Watergate (when public/media scrutiny increased dramatically).
So, given my objection to cameras in the court more generally, it should be pretty clear that I think televising the ACA oral argument is a terrible idea. It’s precisely the wrong kind of argument to televise in that it’s already a hot partisan issue, it’s reasonably likely to be 5-4, and you know damn well that nobody is going to watch all 5 1/2 hours on CSPAN. They’ll get 5 1/2 seconds of Scalia disagreeing with Kagan, and that’ll be the ball game.
So stand strong, SCOTUS. If you decide to let cameras in, do it right at the beginning of a term. Have some boring arguments first. Televise unanimous opinions. Make the first footage something that reflects the real work of the court–not the partisan side.