On courtroom cameras, states continue to lead the way

As the United States Supreme Court begins another Term this month, calls for the Court to open its oral arguments to cameras are getting louder. The Court has traditionally brushed off these demands, and there is little reason to believe that it will respond differently this year. But there is yet hope for supporters of court transparency: the state courts continue to lead the way in allowing broadcasts of courtroom proceedings.  Two examples from just this week illustrate the point:

In Champaign County, Illinois, Judge Heidi Ladd overruled an objection by a public defender and permitted cameras to film the sentencing of a defendant convicted of a 2010 murder.  The court’s bench ruling (available here in video) emphasized the transparency and the public interest:

“I believe that the system flourishes when it does have the participation of the media and the full scrutiny of the public, and is open to all who are interested in the proceedings…. [N]o reason has been advanced to suggest that it in any way prejudices the defendants or impacts his rights.  No good reason has been given to support the objection other than an argument that it was not technical compliance, and I find that the media should be allowed to cover these proceedings.”

In Iowa, state supreme court Justice Thomas Waterman stated in an interview that he strongly supported televising his court’s proceedings, and wished the U.S. Supreme Court would do the same.  “They ask great questions on issues of great importance to all of us and it would be a wonderful civics education for Americans to see their U.S. Supreme Court in action,” Waterman said.

Again, it is not at all clear that the U.S. Supreme Court cares about these opinions. But the public does, and as cameras become more common at the state court level, the expectation of courtroom transparency will develop deeper roots. Such expectations influence perceptions of what the courts should do, which in turn influences the courts’ legitimacy. And legitimacy is the thing that the U.S. Supreme Court cares deeply about.

It may be years or decades away, but eventually cameras will appear in the U.S. Supreme Court chambers — not because the technology has changed, but because the public’s perceptions have.

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