Antonin Scalia Doesn’t Think the American Public Can Be Trusted to Watch Televised Supreme Court Proceedings

C-SPAN’s Brian Lamb recently asked Antonin Scalia why he opposed televising Supreme Court proceedings:

I’m against it because I do not believe […] that the purpose of televising our hearings would be to educate the American people. That’s not what it would end up doing. If I really thought it would educate the American people, I would be all for it. If the American people sat down and watched our proceedings gavel to gavel […] they would be educated. But they wouldn’t see all of that.

Your outfit would carry it all, to be sure, but what most of the American people would see would be 30-second, 15-second takeouts from our argument, and those takeouts would not be characteristic of what we do. They would be uncharacteristic.

But now what we see is an article in a newspaper that’s out of context with what you say is 

That’s fine, but people read that and they say, well it’s an article in the newspaper, and the guy may be lying, or he may be misinformed. But somehow when you see it live, an excerpt pulled out of an entire — when you see it live, it has a much greater impact. No, I am sure it will miseducate the American people, not educate.

I don’t especially want to pick on Scalia here, since I’ll bet that most of the other justices agree with him, but there’s an arrogance here that’s really pretty stunning. He thinks the American public doesn’t deserve televised coverage because the American public might misuse it. Which is to say, they’d use it in ways that Antonin Scalia thinks is unfair.

There’s an argument to be made that televising judicial proceedings encourages both judges and lawyers to play to the cameras in ways that are damaging to the cause of justice. I find this only partly compelling in the case of jury trials, and not really compelling at all in appellate courts. Still, it’s a legitimate argument. But complaining that the American public won’t give your proceedings the deference you think they deserve? That the media might dare to play short snippets of your arguments? Color me very unimpressed.

UPDATE: Last sentence changed to “the media might dare….” Commenters are right about that.

And let me add: it’s not that Scalia is wrong. Of course the media will do stupid stuff. Of course they’ll play the most incendiary snippets they can find. Of course Super PACs will do the same. And of course most of the public won’t ever bother to truly understand all the details of the proceedings.

So what? Nobody thinks that’s a good reason to limit access to any other branch of government. Politics is a messy game. It’s often unfair. That’s life, and in a democracy the public should get to see it unfold regardless of whether you think they’re smart enough to appreciate it.

Suppose the Supreme Court were hearing a case in which some government body wanted to restrict public access to hearings. Do you think they’d buy an argument that the limits were reasonable because the public and the media would just abuse full access and couldn’t be trusted to treat it with the proper intellectual respect? I don’t.

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