A still from an ad by Coalition for Court Transparency, advocating for cameras in the U.S. Supreme Court
A still from an ad by Coalition for Court Transparency, advocating for cameras in the U.S. Supreme Court ()

A coalition of media, public interest and open-government organizations today launched an unprecedented advertising and petition campaign to persuade the U.S. Supreme Court to open its doors to cameras.

The Coalition for Court Transparency was created to generate momentum for a change in the high court’s long-standing resistance toward allowing broadcast access to its proceedings, even as the demands of the Information Age have brought greater transparency to other government institutions.

A 30-second television ad urging the court to permit camera access will air in coming weeks on CNN, Fox, MSNBC and CNBC. Its message, in part: “The Supreme Court’s decisions impact the lives of Americans everywhere. But only a privileged few get to witness history and see justice in action … It’s time for a more open judiciary. It’s time for cameras in the Supreme Court.”

For decades, the news media have politely asked the court to change its policy, and bills have been introduced in Congress to require it to do so. But with congressional leaders reluctant to intrude on the justices’ turf and prerogatives, the bills have withered on the way to passage.

The news media in recent years have taken a largely passive approach, waiting for younger, more media-comfortable justices to join the court. But that strategy has failed as new justices, most recently including Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan, “go native” and suddenly oppose cameras, even though they favored the idea before.

The court has taken some steps toward transparency over recent years, including quick online posting of its opinions and oral argument transcripts. The audio of arguments is available sooner than decades ago, but not same-day, except in rare circumstances. Televising proceedings, however, have been a bridge too far, with past justices Warren Burger and David Souter famously vowing cameras would roll into the court chamber only over their dead bodies.

The new campaign coalesced out of frustration with the court’s resistance, as well as a feeling that the court would benefit, not suffer, from greater public exposure.

“There’s nothing the government does that’s more impressive than the high-quality debates that take place before the Supreme Court,” said Doug Kendall, founder of the Constitutional Accountability Center, a member of the coalition.

Michael Ostrolenk of the Liberty Coalition, another member of the group, also said, “At a time when the public’s confidence in the Supreme Court is eroding, and skepticism in secretive government institutions is high, putting cameras in the court would be a simple way to help restore the court’s image.”

Another trigger for the campaign was recent high-profile oral arguments at which people waited in line overnight or paid high fees for “line sitters” to secure the few public seats inside the court. Only about 250 seats are available to the general public, creating a frenzied market among the public and non-lawyer participants in the same-sex marriage and Affordable Care Act cases argued in recent terms.

“The idea that these individuals, and other concerned parties from across the country, would have to fly to Washington, find a hotel, and stand in line for hours – or pay someone to do so – just to see justice in action shows how far the Court needs to come to get more in step with technology and transparency today,” said Bruce Brown, executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, a member of the coalition.

Other member organizations are: American Society of News Editors, National Association of Broadcasters, National Press Foundation, National Press Photographers Association, Radio Television Digital News Association, Society of Professional Journalists, Alliance for Justice and OpenTheGovernment.org. Placement of the television ad was funded by the New Venture Fund, a charitable organization.

Even if the campaign increases public pressure in favor of cameras, “I can’t see the court changing now,” said University of Virginia court scholar Barbara Perry. “They pride themselves on not following public opinion.” Still, Perry, a past critic of cameras in the court, thinks the court will eventually come around. “They have to admit the times, they are a-changing. At some point they will have to give in.”

Ron Goldfarb, author of a 1998 book about cameras in the courts, is not so sure. On an issue such as camera access, Goldfarb believes, the justices will defer to Chief Justice Roberts, who has been explicit in his opposition to cameras. “Even if a majority of justices is in favor, the chief justice will veto it,” Goldfarb said.

But Goldfarb said participants in the new campaign for camera access are “not wasting their time.” The effort may smooth the path for legislation or litigation that could eventually force the issue, he said. “It’s good in the long run.”

Contact Tony Mauro at tmauro@alm.com. Editor’s note: Mauro is on the steering committee of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, which is a member of the Coalition for Court Transparency.