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Justices take unprecedented steps in releasing audio feed, but continue their traditional resistance to cameras

From the Winter 2001 issue of The News Media & The Law, page 7.

From the Winter 2001 issue of The News Media & The Law, page 7.

While millions of people could watch the televised election arguments from the Florida Supreme Court in November, only the 200 or so who filled the courtroom witnessed the Dec. 1 arguments in front of the U.S. Supreme Court.

Following its tradition, the U.S. Supreme Court denied access to cameras and audio equipment inside the courtroom for the challenge of the election certification from Florida. However, in a surprising first for the Court and adding to an already historic presidential election, the justices released an audiotape to the media immediately following the Dec. 1 oral arguments. Audio recordings are typically sent to the National Archives at the end of the court term for scholarly and academic use.

The court’s decision to promptly release the tape came after repeated requests from news organizations for live televised coverage of the hearings.

On Nov. 22, before the high court even accepted the appeal from George W. Bush, C-SPAN Chairman Brian Lamb sent a letter to the Court requesting camera access to any hearings.

“If the Court were to become involved in determining any aspect of the outcome of the election, the public interest in the Court and its role in our government would likely never be higher,” Lamb wrote.

He said coverage might help the country accept the outcome of the vote. He also added that “unobtrusive television coverage could easily be accomplished” by simply using two cameras, no extra lighting and the court’s own sound system.

Chief Justice William Rehnquist responded to Lamb by letter on Nov. 27, rejecting the request. His response may have indicated that not all the justices opposed cameras entering the courtroom.

“Today the Court took up the question of televising these proceedings and a majority of the Court remains of the view that we should adhere to our present practice of allowing public attendance and print media coverage of argument sessions, but not allow camera or audio coverage,” the chief said.

In a letter to Rehnquist after the denial of camera access, the president of the Radio-Television News Directors Association said, “Just as the public was given meaningful access to the election-related proceedings before the Florida Supreme Court through audio-visual coverage, it should be given meaningful access to the arguments made before this Court.”

“Without television coverage of these historic proceedings, the public will be forced once again to depend on second-hand accounts from the few observers permitted to attend in person,” Barbara Cochran wrote.

Cochran also noted the high public interest in the case and stressed the importance of enhancing the public’s understanding of the judicial system as she advocated for the Court to break from its closed-door practice.

The debate on allowing cameras in the Supreme Court is not new. For years, some justices have sought to maintain their anonymity and claim cameras would disrupt the courtroom. One justice, David Souter, voiced his opposition publicly.

“I think the case is so strong that I can tell you the day you see a camera come into our courtroom, it’s going to roll over my dead body,” he told a House Appropriations subcommittee in 1996.

Fifteen minutes after the conclusion of the oral arguments, numerous broadcasters, such as, C-SPAN, CNN, Fox News, NBC, ABC, CBS, MSNBC and CNBC aired the audio tape. Some networks provided viewers with captions from a transcript and most showed a picture or sketch of the particular speaker. — EH