Former NJ Supreme Court Justice: Cameras in SCOTUS Would Enhance Public’s Understanding

May 7, 2015 | Law & Public Safety

It is the most respected branch of government. Its decisions set precedents that shape the nation. This spring it could ban same-sex marriage or gut Obamacare. And it will do so behind closed doors. Citizens won’t have the benefit of watching the arguments or witnessing the rulings to judge the merits of the cases themselves because cameras are not allowed in the courtroom. The arguments have been heard and slapped down in lower courts. Arguments that lawyers would showboat, that TV coverage would compromise justices’ anonymity, that no one would watch anyway. Former New Jersey Supreme Court Justice Peter Verniero has tested the validity of those arguments himself. Verniero told NJTV News Anchor Mary Alice Williams that allowing cameras inside the Supreme Court would enhance the public’s understanding.

“Well you can only get a complete sense of an argument by seeing it,” said Verniero. “You can see the expressions of the court, the demeanor of the justices, the nonverbal communications that we all make. All of that is lost, unless you could see it, unless it’s televised. You can hear it on audio tape and you can read a transcript, but it’s simply not the same.”

On the argument that justices and attorneys will “play” for the cameras, Verniero said that based on his experience on the New Jersey Supreme Court, it has not happened. The New Jersey Supreme Court has televised its hearing for many years and Verniero said that he had not once seen any lawyers or members of the court play to the cameras. He said playing to the camera would be wasting their time and that the justices are too focused on the serious issues that they’re considering.

Whether justices would lose anonymity if cameras were allowed inside the court, Verniero said, “Unfortunately all public servants, including the members of the Supreme Court, lose anonymity when they take on the significant positions and they lose to some extent their privacy. That comes with the territory. So you have to expect that when you attain these high offices and the justices themselves are out giving speeches, they’re sometimes giving television interviews, so I think they sort of waived their anonymity at some point.”

When mentioned about how some of the justices become superstars — such as in the case of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg who has been referred to as “Notorious RBG” — Verniero said that he has a lot of respect for all members of the court but they all are celebrities in their own right. Verniero questions why the public hasn’t been allowed to see the justices at their best.

Verniero said that cameras might be banned from the U.S. Supreme Court because it has been tradition. He said that the judicial branch has been very steeped in tradition versus the other branches and that it has been the protocol in the court’s tenure. Verniero believes that rule should be changed.

“But I think history deserves that the public at large can have as much access possible to the highest court in the land,” said Verniero.

When asked if significant cases such as same-sex marriage reignite the debate about whether cameras should be allowed inside the court, Verniero said that an argument with great public interest is why the public would want to see the court proceedings.

“Of course the public wants to hear the argument and see the argument and get a sense of what the atmosphere is like in the courtroom,” he said. “The demeanor of the judges and so forth — that’s part of democracy. The United States Supreme Court, as I thought I heard you say in the beginning, is the most respected branch of government. That respect would only be enhanced, in my view, if it were to allow cameras before the court.”