A three-judge panel of the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco recently allowed the live two-hour broadcast in the case challenging the constitutionality of California’s ban on same-sex marriage.
To many Washington state observers, the broadcast – not the first for the 9th Circuit – might have seemed ordinary. After all, TVW, this state’s public affairs network, routinely broadcasts hearings in the state Supreme Court.
But the 9th Circuit, where Washington cases on their way to the U.S. Supreme Court are argued, was breaking new ground with the broadcast of the same-sex marriage court proceedings. Only one other federal court – in New York – has allowed cameras in the courtroom. The United States Supreme Court has refused to allow cameras or broadcasts of proceedings in the highest court in the land.
That’s unfortunate. Cameras are not obstructive or intrusive. It’s time for the federal judiciary to take off the blinders and allow cameras – still cameras, broadcast cameras and audio recordings – in the courtroom.
Lord knows, Congress has tried to pry open the courts’ doors. The Sunshine in the Courtroom Act, a bill to allow the broadcasting of U.S. District Court and U.S. Court of Appeals proceedings, was introduced in 2005, 2007, 2008 and 2009. It has yet to pass.
In 2009 the Judicial Council of the 9th Circuit urged that cameras be allowed to record a limited number of court proceedings. The justices, who hear cases from the West Coast, have followed through, broken the logjam and allowed the broadcast of a limited number of cases. For example, they aired the challenge of Arizona’s controversial immigration law. The same-sex marriage case was equally controversial and equally deserving of a public airing.
Court officials say the pilot broadcasts have not disrupted the legal proceedings.
Unfortunately, while 9th Circuit judges are stepping up, other justices are taking a step backward. Recently, a Georgia judge prohibited a reporter from tweeting during a money-laundering trial, saying tweeting is just another form of broadcasting – a violation of court rules.
And the U.S. Supreme Court forbid the broadcasting of the trial on the same-sex marriage challenge.
The decision to broadcast at the appellate level was left up to the three judges hearing the case in the 9th Circuit and they – rightfully – agreed to throw open the doors and allow the public to watch the judiciary branch at work.
And that’s the central issue in the cameras-in-the-courtroom debate. The public should have a right to listen in and watch for themselves as judges consider these weighty legal and public policy issues. With a flip of the remote, residents across the nation can tune to C-SPAN and watch the U.S. House of Representatives and U.S. Senate in action. If it’s good enough for the legislative branch creating law, it certainly should be good enough for the judicial branch as judges consider the constitutionality of those laws.
In this state, TVW not only broadcasts House and Senate floor action, it captures committee hearings, too. And the TVW broadcasts bring state Supreme Court hearings – not judicial deliberations – directly into homes across the state.
That’s a true public service.
It’s time for federal judges to respond positively to public demands for more open and transparent court proceedings. The federal court’s policy making arm took a step in the right direction last year when the Judicial Conference of the United States authorized a pilot project to allow cameras into some federal district court proceedings.
The 9th Circuit’s experience on the immigration and same-sex marriage cases should pave the way for additional broadcasts. It’s time for the U.S. Supreme Court to take the plunge and give Americans a front row seat at federal court proceedings at every level. Who knows, broadcasting court proceedings might just improve the public’s perception of the judicial branch of government.