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Perspectives: Lift the Court Camera Ban

Like an increasing number of public institutions, the U.S. Supreme Court is observing a few of the Jewish holidays this year. The first day of Rosh Hashanah fell on a Monday, and Yom Kippur fell on a Wednesday, so the justices did not hear oral arguments on those days.

Growing up in Tennessee, I could not imagine that a body like the high court would acknowledge my religious observances. And yet, as each year I learn about more ways in which Jews can celebrate the holidays—from lakeside services to interactive storytelling to yoga retreats—there is really only one way to be a part of oral argument at the U.S. Supreme Court—live and in person.

Well, maybe two. After all, those who were unable to attend second day of Rosh Hashanah services in person on Oct. 4 could stream the ecclesiastical action before the high court of heavenly justice on their computers and mobile devices. Due to the jurists’ refusal to grant broadcast access, though, only a few hundred souls in Washington were able to experience the gaveling in of the high court of American justice on Oct. 4. That should not be the case in 2016.

Call the court hamstrung, or not, due to the vacancy; call into question the justices’ motives or mental acuity; call on them to take more or fewer or different cases—but wherever one stands on the court’s jurisprudence or institutional limitations, all citizens can agree there is something injudicious about how it insists on hiding its work from the vast majority of the public.

The justices’ anti-broadcast posture did not make sense two years ago when Fix the Court, my organization that advocates for a more open judiciary, began; two decades ago when the first congressional cameras-in-court bill was introduced; or even in 1972 when the Judicial Conference adopted a cameras ban that is still in place in all but five (of more than 100) federal courts. And it does not make sense today.

In the next Congress, members of both parties will likely once again introduce bills to try to force the justices’ hands and let the cameras in. But that strategy has not worked to this point, and it is unlikely to break through in 2017. One suggestion: live audio. With the proliferation of SCOTUS podcasts, it would be a nice addition to this trend to actually hear the justices themselves live, arguing about the most pressing legal issues of the day.

Gabe Roth is executive director of Fix the Court, a national nonprofit that advocates for a more open and accountable Supreme Court.