America Has Cameras in All the Wrong Courtrooms

When Justice Alito rolled his eyes at Justice Ginsberg on Monday, very few people saw it. Tens of thousands of people, by contrast, watched Rachel Jeantel testify in the trial of George Zimmerman. It's impossible not to think: This is 100 percent backwards.

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When Justice Alito rolled his eyes at Justice Ginsberg on Monday, very few people saw it. Those who did found it revealing if not insightful, a glimpse at the tensions on the bench. Tens of thousands of people, by contrast, watched Rachel Jeantel testify in the trial of George Zimmerman, in real-time. Opinions of her behavior varied much more dramatically. And it's impossible not to think: This is 100 percent backwards.

No part of the Supreme Court process is televised. Not the relatively brief opening arguments, not the bench statements when the justices present their opinions. Senators Dick Durbin of Illinois and Chuck Grassley of Iowa have been pushing for that to change for years. "[W]e can all agree," Durbin wrote while reintroducing the bill last week, "that the American public deserves the opportunity to see firsthand the arguments and opinions that will shape their society for years to come."

This is probably right. The word "deserves" is important. There's a measure of accountability for the otherwise unaccountable body in being seen as they decide on those legal issues that are necessarily the most important in the country. The court and the attorneys that present before it are professionals, engaged in disputes over critical matters. It's largely symbolic, but in a democracy, we should see how that unfolds, even if we can't affect it.

The Justices generally don't agree. In March, we outlined why the Court is still without cameras: in short, inertia. Those justices who support the idea are both in the minority and not motivated by urgency. Those who oppose it point to concerns that the deliberative process will be misrepresented or, worse, negatively affected. "It runs the risk of undermining the manner in which we consider the cases," Justice Thomas said in 2006.

So what does it do to Rachel Jeantel? Over a span of six hours, spread over two days, Jeantel told a courtroom in Florida about her phone call with Trayvon Martin shortly before he was shot to death by George Zimmerman in a suburban housing complex. Jeantel, a teenaged African-American woman, was predictably critiqued by Zimmerman's lawyers, but perhaps unexpectedly by many of those watching. The politically polarized case led to similarly divided reviews of Jeantel's testimony. "Rachel Jeantel on Trial," the New Yorker wrote, noting that "[c]rass assessments of her weight, looks, and intelligence from some white observers competed with a cocktail of vicarious shame, embarrassment, and disdain from some black ones." Jeantel became a subject of intense interest from the moment she walked into the courtroom, thanks to the cameras trained on her.

In criminal trials, amateur juries hear from mostly amateur witnesses and judge the guilt or innocence of a defendant based solely on what they hear in the courtroom. Juries are asked to consider their experience in judging the veracity of witnesses — does he or she seem believable? — which is predicated on the witness faithfully representing him- or herself. If a witness is aware of the cameras, is aware however obliquely of how her first day of testimony was presented to the public, should we worry about that?

Should we assume, in other words, that Clarence Thomas, a seasoned jurist, would find his deliberative process undermined, but Jeantel, a 19-year-old, wouldn't? Are we supposed to believe that the titillating rubber-necking of the Zimmerman trial — or of the Jodi Arias trial or the Casey Anthony trial or of any case on which Nancy Grace expounds — somehow enhances the application of justice? Or should we assume that these multiweek cases and their witnesses are somehow unaffected by the media circus? Does Rachel Jeantel deserve the same scrutiny as the person accused of murder?

The Supreme Court is the ideal place for a camera. Professionals at the height of their careers presenting and considering deeply important issues. And if a camera motivates Clarence Thomas to speak more frequently, that's for the best. If it prompts Alito to refrain from physical manifestations of disdain, so be it.

Lower criminal courts, by contrast, are not. Having cameras there is at best voyeurism. At worst, it gets the idea of justice precisely backward. Justice is supposed to be blind, to operate in ignorance of outside influence. When justice is being watched, that process can get unacceptably tricky.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.