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Justice Speeches

Guest Editorial Column
Retired Chief Justice Maureen O'Connor
March 29, 2013

Chief Justice Maureen O\'Connor

Guest Editorial Column

March 29, 2013

As the U.S. Supreme Court heard historic oral arguments on same-sex marriage last week, a debate outside the courtroom centered on a timeless question facing the top court in the land: Should the justices respond to public opinion or lag behind as society moves forward?

I believe that what we witnessed last week leads to the inescapable conclusion that the U.S. Supreme Court should catch up with where the nation has come. It is time for the court to allow cameras in its courtroom.

I write not as chief justice of the Supreme Court of Ohio but as a citizen. I have a unique perspective by virtue of my experience as a justice on a televised Supreme Court.

Regardless of one's views on same-sex marriage, this week offered a spectacle of vivid images demonstrating that the justices are lost in the 19th Century when it comes to being open and transparent to the public they serve. Rather than seeing lawyers in action before the justices, we saw citizens huddled in the cold for days, waiting for a ticket to have the privilege to watch our democratic system of justice in action. There are over 300 million Americans, but only 500 seats in the Supreme Court gallery. For most of us, after two days of arguments, we have only almost comical courtroom sketches of the proceedings rather than video or even still photographs. We are left with talking heads speculating on what they did not themselves observe in the impenetrable sanctum accessible only to an elite and chosen few. These images serve no purpose but to further erode the public image of the court.

Late last year, public confidence in the Supreme Court reached its lowest point in 25 years. In one poll by the New York Times and CBS News, only 44 percent of Americans said they approved of the job of the court. About 75 percent said they believe the Court's decisions are influenced by politics.

In this Information Age -- when you can post a video of your child's piano recital and his grandparents "like" it on Facebook before he has finished playing - the public's expectations about how they acquire knowledge and understand the world have undergone a radical metamorphosis. The impact of video and audio has no equal and, absent really being there, there is no substitute.

The tired, old arguments against allowing cameras in the courtroom are approaching flat earth status. They essentially fall into one of four categories:

The court is to be commended for allowing same day audio of certain big arguments, and select federal lower courts have been experimenting with recorded video of certain proceedings. However, the day will come - hopefully very soon - when all U.S. Supreme Court cases are broadcast live in their entirety.

When it does, people will look back on this era the way we do today on the days when ladies were not allowed on the floor of the U.S. Congress.

The times, they are a changing. It's time for the Supreme Court to catch up.

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