The XX Factor

Cameras in the Courtroom: Good for Everyone

Despite Elena Kagan’s past criticism of confirmation theater, her recent comments indicate that she will hew to the same safe script and deliver the kind of nonprejudicial pablum on cultural hot buttons like abortion and gay marriage we’ve come to expect at Supreme Court hearings. Fortunately, the one question for which we can expect some degree of candor is one that touches on the institutional integrity of the Court and its relevance in 21 st century public life: cameras in the courtroom.

In contrast to her more outspoken predecessor, newcomer Sonia Sotomayor appeared willing to support broadcasting oral arguments when queried on the subject last summer at her confirmation hearings. And, as this 2009 C-SPAN clip reveals, Kagan has also spoken glowingly of the idea.

This is good news-and not just for rabid wonks and SCOTUS devotees. The argument for televising or, at the very least, streaming oral arguments should be obvious. By giving citizens an unfiltered window into their proceedings, the Court would promote public engagement in civic matters, provide a sorely needed counterweight to less admirable television personalities, and bring an unprecedented level of transparency to the process of deciding the important legal issues that may affect the most intimate aspects of our lives.

Broadcasting Supreme Court proceedings would also aid feminists in achieving gender and racial parity on the court. While many have a vague idea of who makes up the nine judges, actually seeing them enrobed and assembled on the bench would jolt Americans out of complacency and spur them to press their political leaders for greater diversity.

Critics may carp, as one Congressman recently did , that the cloistered intellectual work of appellate judges differs so markedly from that of other political appointees that cameras would mislead lay viewers about how cases are decided. Televising the proceedings, opponents argue, would be like staging a novel-writing competition and serve simply to supply fodder for late-night comedians and fiery, fatuous pundits on cable news. That is a valid concern, no doubt, but justices have life tenure. They’re not going anywhere, no matter how bilious the attacks from Glenn Beck get. The justices should sacrifice their vanity and join their new colleague in supporting this step toward good government.

Photograph of Elena Kagan by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images.