The ornate marble chamber in which the Supreme Court hears cases accommodates about 400 spectators. Among these are reporters, guests of the justices and members of the Supreme Court Bar — lawyers who may never argue a case before the justices but who retain privileges at the court. Once all those take their seats, The Post’s Robert Barnes reports, sometimes fewer than 100 spaces remain. The result: long, long lines for members of the public hoping to hear a major case argued or decided.

That’s wrong. Ordinary people should have a front-row seat to the proceedings in one of the most powerful public institutions in the country — even if it’s a virtual seat. It’s time for the court to end its ban on cameras in the courtroom.

Transcripts of oral arguments often post hours after they occur. Audio usually isn’t available until the end of the week. Those who don’t get in must rely on snippets from Twitter and other second-hand accounts for information on court arguments or decisions, depriving them of context to understand the justices’ words.

The presence of live audio and video would solve these problems, and more. It would be a potent tool to sharpen public interest in legal issues and the court’s role in resolving them. The court is financed by the public and works on its behalf. Unless there is some major national interest in keeping proceedings cloaked, the default position should be public access.

Critics of cameras worry about turning the court into a circus. Lawyers might grandstand, playing to television audiences rather than keeping their eyes on the substance. Justices might water down their questions and comments, replacing clarity and sophistication with oversimplification. The public might pay more attention to the personalities on the court than the substance of the law.

Any of the lucky few who have seen the justices in action should realize that these risks are small. The justices can be counted on to interrupt lawyers on a near-constant basis, leaving little opportunity for grandstanding. The justices already attempt to use real-world language and analogies to simplify complex legal issues for reporters and the transcript-reading public. And decisions already are routinely scrutinized with reference to the personalities involved.

Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. has not offered encouraging signals about reversing the court’s camera ban. We’d ask that he at least allow live audio as a first, experimental step. If that does not erode the capability of the court to function in a dignified manner, cameras could be the next step.

Editorial by The Washington Post


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