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Reporters Committee panel discusses technology and transparency in the Supreme Court

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  1. Court Access
Supreme Court correspondents, academics, lawyers and a state supreme court chief justice discussed court transparency at the National Press Club…

Supreme Court correspondents, academics, lawyers and a state supreme court chief justice discussed court transparency at the National Press Club today, with one panelist saying that one day cameras in the highest court will become a reality.

"I think it's inevitable," said panelist Pete Williams, the justice correspondent for NBC News.

The panel, hosted by The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, talked about a range of topics that included the lack of a standardized recusal process, the fact that justices are not bound by a code of conduct and camera access to court hearings.

Tony Mauro, Supreme Court correspondent for the National Law Journal and a member of the steering committee of the Reporters Committee, moderated the discussion. He opened by acknowledging that the growth of the digital age is providing an unstoppable momentum toward transparency.

Ken Starr, president of Baylor University and former U.S. solicitor general, spoke in favor of greater transparency of the Court. The panelist acknowledged that one concern of allowing cameras in the Court is that attorneys arguing cases may try to grandstand. But he said that in his own experience arguing cases where cameras have been allowed, they have been “utterly unobtrusive.”

Maureen O’Connor, Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Ohio, emphasized that there is no downside to the public being exposed to arguments. The panelist said that it is time to "pull back the curtain" and allow the American public to see the high court.

According to O'Connor, the Ohio Supreme Court has been successfully broadcasting arguments live for 10 years. The state's highest court also archives oral arguments and makes briefs and opinions available online. O’Connor noted that Americans deserve the opportunity to see the government in action and that judges "are all public servants, first and foremost."

“The more transparency our government has, the greater opportunity for understanding,” she said.

Williams spoke of Justice Antonin Scalia’s position that people would not watch the entire argument if cameras were to be allowed in and that the public would rely on snippets. Williams said that this was not a valid criticism because viewers understand snippets and are used to reading quotes instead of entire opinions.

Williams also brought up another issue he believes the Justices may be concerned about.

“They fear being made fun of by Jon Stewart on the Daily Show,” he said. Starr suggested that justices “grow an extra layer of skin” if they are worried about exposure.

Neal Katyal, Georgetown Law professor and former acting U.S. solicitor general, called the Supreme Court a “temple of truth” and said it is “truly awe-inspiring to watch.” Katyal, who has argued 17 cases before the Supreme Court, also noted the important civics lesson it could provide to the public.

“It is a pity that more Americans don’t get to see it,” he said.

The court rarely releases same-day audio and recording devices are not allowed during oral arguments or opinion announcements. Katyal noted that moving forward the Supreme Court would look “extremely idiosyncratic” to be the one place without cameras.

Panelist Alan Morrison, an associate dean at George Washington Law School, suggested the initial step of broadcasting audio of arguments by radio.