Cameras in the Courtroom

It is fascinating to watch special interest groups seeking privileges for themselves in the guise of protecting the rights of other people. A recent issue of Editor & Publisher magazine — the trade journal of newspapers — argued for allowing the use of cameras in federal courtrooms, including the Supreme Court.

“The public’s right to know” has long been the battle cry of those seeking to intrude where they are not wanted and where their presence may inflict costs on others. Almost never are the public nearly as worked up over their “right to know” as the media people are.

What has gotten Editor & Publisher magazine excited is that a bipartisan bill in the U.S. Senate would allow federal judges the discretion to determine whether or when they would permit their courtroom proceedings to be photographed.

If the word “bipartisan” is not enough to alert you to mischief afoot, the fact that this bill also contains a pay raise for federal judges should raise red flags. In other words, a provision for cameras in federal courtrooms that might not make it past Congress and the president on its own is tied to an overdue pay raise for judges, so that it may get a piggy-back ride into law.

Why do we need cameras in federal courtrooms and what are they supposed to accomplish?

There is just no question about it, if you go by what Editor & Publisher says: Those in the judiciary “must temper their irrational aversion to courtroom cameras.” This is necessary if “federal courts are to be truly open and accountable.”

This is all fine rhetoric, for those who are connoisseurs of rhetoric. But what does it mean?

Federal judges are given lifetime appointments precisely so that they are not “accountable” to the general public but can be removed only by the U.S. Senate for misconduct in office. So cameras will not make federal judges any more accountable than before.

What does “truly open” mean? What is there to be “open” about, especially in the federal appellate courts, including the Supreme Court?

Appellate courts are not conducting trials to find out who is guilty or innocent. They are not supposed to be examining facts the way a jury would or the way television viewers could judge facts along with the jury.

Appellate courts examine the record of trials that have already taken place to see if the prescribed legal procedures were used and the relevant constitutional precedents were followed.

You can watch this kind of stuff all day long without being any wiser in the evening than you were in the morning — unless you already have enough background in the law to know what is relevant and what is not.

What cameras can do is give you the illusion of knowing what is going on when in fact you don’t have a clue. Ignorance is preferable to the illusion of knowledge.

No small part of the social disasters that have made the words “unintended consequences” so widely known comes from people who have had the illusion of knowledge.

You cannot photograph what is relevant when what is truly relevant goes on within the minds of other people and finds its context in a whole body of writings and traditions that go back for generations.

Without that knowledge, you are just kidding yourself by looking at pictures. And if you do have that knowledge, the federal appellate court records are open to all and are bound in volumes that last for centuries.

Cameras in the courtroom amount to free advertising for lawyers and judges, free footage for TV, and more pictures for newspapers and magazines. So it is easy to see why Editor & Publisher wants it. But let’s not wrap this in the mantle of the public’s right to know.

A much stronger case could be made for removing cameras from where they are now than for intruding them into places where they trivialize more than they inform. We don’t need to turn the Supreme Court of the United States into another “Judge Judy.”