Lights, Camera . . . Action?

The Senate Judiciary Committee in Washington last month approved S1945, a bill that would require the U.S. Supreme Court to televise its proceedings. This seems like such an obviously good idea.

The High Court is going to hear argument on the constitutionality of Obama’s health-care plan, but only a lucky few will get to hear the proceedings live. Think of the millions of people who watch Madonna at halftime or the next winner of Idol or the Bachelor. Imagine how the country might have focused on the true workings of the Supreme Court if the Bush v. Gore proceedings had been televised.

Last month, the Illinois Supreme Court announced that, effective immediately, cameras will be permitted inside all Illinois trial courts. Illinois’ Chief Justice, Thomas Kilbride, explained, “This is another step to bring more transparency and more accountability to the Illinois court system.”


According to the Radio Television Digital News Association (RTDNA), there is a lot of state-to-state variability, but most states allow electronic media in to cover at least some court proceedings. Many states, for example, restrict coverage of cases involving minors, and that seems quite reasonable. Most states, though, do allow coverage of trial proceedings. See:

The U.S. Supreme Court and Illinois Supreme Court are not the last to open their doors to the electronic media. One state still has an effective ban on news media coverage in the courtrooms throughout the system: Pennsylvania.

Last September, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court did begin allowing the Pennsylvania Cable Network to stream live telecasts of limited arguments. (Apparently, none of the links to these recorded arguments, found on the PCN website, allow you to replay the arguments later.  I tried.)

But no cameras are allowed in any trial court in Pennsylvania. There is no good reason for Pennsylvania to trail so far behind on this issue.

The idea of cameras in the courts is of special interest to me. Before I went to law school, I spent a number of years as an investigative journalist. In 1990, I became involved in a project to start one of the first specialized cable channels, Court TV. The idea was a simple one and a good one. Courtroom drama has long been the stuff of television shows and movies, from LA Law to Boston Common. If these fictional accounts were interesting to people, then the real thing would be even more so.

The fact that Court TV had its cable cut probably says something about regularly sustaining popular interest in long-form coverage of court proceedings. Obviously, most folks are more interested in shows like “Hairy Bikers” and “The Hoarder Whisperer.”

High-profile cases still attract large TV audiences, especially if the case involves someone named OJ or Michael Jackson or Casey Anthony.  I would think the Sandusky/Penn State trial, now scheduled for May of this year, would garner a lot of interest, too.

Still, there are other reasons for opening up the Supreme Court and Pennsylvania trial courts besides the promise of huge TV ratings. As Justice Kilbride noted, transparency and accountability are good.

In most cases, courtrooms are open to the public. Anyone, any time can go down to City Hall or the Federal Courthouse at 6th and Market in Philadelphia and sit in on a trial. That is the way it should be: Open and public. For the same reason, opening Pennsylvania courtrooms to the media would serve the public interest.