High Court Health Care Case Rekindles TV Camera Debate

A majority of participants in recent polls conducted by The Wall Street Journal Law Blog and USA Today say they favor allowing TV cameras to broadcast the upcoming U.S. Supreme Court arguments over the  new federal health care law. Wall-to-wall media coverage and intense public interest in the politically-charged case have rekindled a decades-long debate: Should proceedings at the nation’s highest court be televised?

Opponents cite a variety of reasons for keeping cameras at bay – from the possibility of high court proceedings being distorted by “soundbite coverage” to the fear that lawyers (or even justices themselves) might be influenced by the notion of their every word being captured for broadcast. Advocates of TV cameras point to the idea of enhancing openness to promote public confidence in the justice system and the need to embrace the same transparency exhibited by the nation’s legislative branch, where cameras have been rolling during congressional and senate proceedings for many years.

Given that we live in a media age when seemingly everything ends up on television or the web, it is probably inevitable that the Supreme Court will eventually allow cameras into its courtroom.  After all, if they don’t, people will begin to question why one of the very few things we can’t all see a co-equal branch of government working on the people’s business in a public proceeding. 

But the notion of lawyers and judges grandstanding for the cameras is probably overblown.  The lawyers have a job to do in persuading the Court, and anyone familiar with how appellate courts work knows that judges are focused on the strength of the arguments before them and pay little heed to the charismatic charm of the lawyers.  Indeed, televised oral arguments may have the positive benefit of educating certain elements of the public that oral arguments are not at all what they thought they would be.  For even seasoned attorneys, the minutial focus on the binding effect of various precedents and the hypothetical consequences of establishing new ones can be dizzying, especially if you haven’t read the briefs. 

But if the public ultimately realizes that the Court’s decisions are far more rooted in precedent and legal interpretation than the prevailing political winds, televised coverage would be a good thing. 

Posted: 1/23/2012 6:52:24 AM by Editor | with 0 comments

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Thanks for stopping by On the Merits, the first blog from the Texas Center for Legal Ethics. On the Merits will take a close look at significant legal stories with an eye toward addressing the legal myths and misconceptions that turn up in news stories, movies, TV programs, websites, anonymous emails and other forms of mass communications. Our goal at On the Merits is to provide readers with a thoughtful examination of what the media and others are saying about the legal profession and to apply the frequently-absent context of how the legal system actually works.

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