U.S. Supreme Court

50 state supreme courts allow cameras, but not the US Supreme Court; is it a 'fragile flower'?

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Updated: Live coverage of oral arguments is the norm in the nation’s state supreme courts, but not at the U.S. Supreme Court.

The high court releases transcripts within hours of the argument, but audio generally isn’t released until the end of the week, the Washington Post reports. Cameras aren’t allowed. Those practices came under criticism last week at a panel sponsored by Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press.

According to coverage of the event by the Columbus Dispatch, all 50 state Supreme Courts allow TV cameras, with some restrictions.

National Law Journal reporter Tony Mauro said the camera ban isn’t the only nod to tradition at the U.S. Supreme Court. Though financial disclosure forms for most public officials are available online, those for the justices can only be accessed—for a fee—from the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts. Reasons for recusals aren’t given, the justices’ public schedules are not routinely distributed, and news of health “is very hit and miss,” he said.

Mauro voiced his concerns about the U.S. Supreme Court’s policy in a National Law Journal story earlier this year that was summarized by the First Amendment Center. The justices “are fearful of the changes that cameras might trigger in the dynamics between justices and advocates and with each other,” Mauro wrote, “as if the court were a fragile flower, instead of the sturdy institution it is, an institution that usually holds up well under public scrutiny.”

Justice Antonin Scalia has voiced his fear that only “snippets” of oral arguments would be used by the media. Panelist Pete Williams of NBC answered that objection during last week’s discussion, the Post says. Williams said the “snippets” are called “quotations” in newspaper stories, and the justices likely fear their use by late-night comedians, rather than evening news reports.

Meanwhile, the amount of camera access in the state supreme courts can vary. In Virginia, for example, the state supreme court will consider written applications for camera access in advance of oral arguments, although the request could be denied, often because of statutory protections, according to court clerk Patricia Harrington. Audio recordings are not allowed separate from video recordings, she says.

Prior coverage:

ABAJournal.com: “Let cameras in, Ohio chief justice tells SCOTUS”

Updated at 12:45 p.m. to change headline to reflect report that the Virginia Supreme Court does not allow camera or audio recordings. Updated at 1:40 p.m. to restore original headline and add information from the Virginia Supreme Court clerk, who said the court may allow cameras after receiving a written advance request.

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