C-SPAN’s Lamb Explains Court Camera Crusade


This week marks the beginning of the Senate Judiciary Committee confirmation hearings of U.S. Judge Samuel Alito, President Bush's choice to replace Sandra Day O'Connor on the U.S. Supreme Court. Encouraged by C-SPAN, Court TV and radio and TV news directors, senators are expected to press Alito, just as they did U.S. Chief Justice John Roberts, on whether he would support televised coverage of the high court's 80 oral arguments. C-SPAN founder and CEO Brian Lamb has for years led cable's effort on cameras in the high court. In an interview with Multichannel NewsWashington news editor Ted Hearn, Lamb explained his relentless drive to convince the cloistered custodians of an 18th-century institution that they are indeed ready for primetime.

MCN:What's the best argument for TV coverage of the Supreme Court?

Lamb: Well, in my personal opinion, it's strictly a matter of education for the American people. There are a lot of different reasons. I want to make it clear that my interests are -- and our interests are -- in the appellate court system. We have no real interest in the district court, the trial courts, all that. And I've never really taken a position on that stuff, so we're not necessarily saying that every court in the land ought to be open. And I think there is another world out there when it comes to trial courts.

MCN: If you had to sit down with U.S. Chief Justice John Roberts and he said, "What's the best argument for C‑SPAN coming in here and televising the court," what would you say to him?

Lamb: Well, there are a lot of things I'd say to him, including the fact that it's not going to hurt this court in any way, because if people understood the nature of what happens in the Supreme Court, they would learn, first of all, that there are roughly only 80 arguments per year -- it's 80 hours -- and that the time is divided between the two sides. Sometimes there are three sides involved; but it's basically between two sides, 30 minutes on each side.

And it is all on the record, and it's in a government building paid for by the taxpayers, and all of the decisions are made behind closed doors that we have not asked to get cameras in, nor do we care. That's the business of the court.

That these are grown humans, talented lawyers, educated, capable of handling any situation that might be unusual or obnoxious or unruly, and the Chief Justice handles it very well -- at least Mr. Rehnquist did and I'm sure Mr. Roberts would.

That we have a separation of powers in this country, and that there is clearly no understanding whatsoever in the general populace about how the Supreme Court operates. There's no jury in the room. Cameras can be hidden and lights don't have to be turned up considerably, and an awful lot of the decision‑making is done from the briefs in the first place.

MCN: So your main point would be that television coverage would not hurt the institution?

Lamb: Absolutely, in no way. There's no reason why the institution would change at all.

MCN: What's the worst argument for allowing cameras into the Court?

Lamb: I don't have any. I hear all the time from the members of the court that, No. 1, they're concerned that this would be a message to all of the courts in the country that they would have to go on television. I don't understand that.

No. 2, that their own personal security would be in some jeopardy. I don't understand that either, because they go all over the country and speak to audiences everywhere, and they're very public. Their pictures are in the paper every day, and they are public servants. They are paid $200,000 per year, roughly, to serve the public, not to serve a private institution that they don't have to see the public.

No. 3, why do they let the print press in? Why do they let people who do caricatures or artwork around, editorial cartoons or editorial drawings around and television reporters who can come in and walk out in front of the court and characterize what just happened, when they won't let the public see it themselves? I mean, there's a disconnect here, based on years and years of bias against having television cover events in the country, and it often comes from the fact that these are people who are academics, and that's just the way it is.

MCN: Are we on the verge of a breakthrough regarding cameras in the Supreme Court?

Lamb: I have absolutely no idea. My gut tells me we're not. It will be fascinating to watch if the Senate and the House, one or both, passes a law or a resolution that says they have to open up to cameras, and I don't think anybody has any idea what would actually happen if that were to take place.

MCN: What's it going to take to televise the Supreme Court, nine baby boomers?

Lamb:No. It's going to take a chief justice, to start with, who believes it's in the interest of the country to televise the Court and it's in the interest of the Court. And until that happens, you're not going to have them.

MCN: Is there even one justice today who would accept TV cameras?

Lamb:We do not know. We have no idea. In the Justice Breyer interview, the question that I asked him that we had never had an answer to is, ‘Have they ever voted on this or talked about it in the Court?,’ and he said not since he first came to the Court in 1994. And the only evidence that I've ever had that the Court ever voted on anything regarding television -- and I don't have it in front of me, but [it] was an article in Irish-America Magazine, an interview with [Justice] William Brennan, where he said, this is my understanding, I've never seen it, but it was explained to me -- they had a vote and it was 8-1, and he was the one.

MCN: In his Senate confirmation hearing, Chief Justice Roberts was noncommittal about cameras. I guess some interpreted that as progress. Did you?

Lamb:No. I didn't consider it progress or a setback. I considered the fact that he was neutral, which they often are when they come into those hearings, and I don't think what they say about cameras in the courts has anything to do with reality until they get inside the court.

MCN: What about Justice Scalia's point that although C-SPAN might have an educational purpose, for the rest of the media, it's showbiz and ratings?

Lamb: I don't think it matters. It's the First Amendment, to start with, and I don't understand where he is coming from on this because, as I said earlier, if he doesn't like what the commercial television networks do, why does he then allow a television reporter to come sit in the court and then go outside and characterize what he just did?

It seems to me that he has a much better chance of being heard exactly as he wanted to be heard if the people in the country who want to watch these arguments can see them in their entirety than he does by turning over a characterization of what happens in the Court to people, both print and in television, who are just reporting what they saw happen and what they think is important, rather than what the justices think is important.

MCN: What about Justice Kennedy's point that the ban on cameras teaches the public that the Court is different from the White House and Congress?

Lamb: I couldn't disagree more. I don't understand that reasoning. We know how different they are. Anybody who follows the Court understands the role that they play and the power that they have, the importance that they have in the whole separation of powers. I just strongly disagree with his idea that it proves anything to not have cameras in the court.

MCN: Do you know any of these justices socially where, around a cocktail or something, you've been able to discuss this with them?

Lamb: I do know some of them socially, but I can tell you that I never have discussed it socially, the idea of television in the Court. There's nothing that I have learned in private about this issue that I haven't talked about publicly.

As a matter of fact, in one case, I have been a 30‑year friend of one of the justices [Scalia] -- we're not weekly social friends or anything like that, but I've known him very well [and] I've been in his home several times -- and I totally disagree with almost everything he says about cameras, and I've said it publicly, sometimes to the detriment of what would be a normal friendship, and I don't care.

My obligation isn't to the friendship: My obligation is to what we do here in this place, trying to open up the public meetings in our society to the public.

Not socially, but I have met recently with members of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia [Circuit] about the idea of television, and it was in their dining room and there were seven judges there, and we talked about this.

But it was at their invitation to hear what we thought about it and how we would do it and all that kind of stuff. I don't plan on, at any time, just dealing with this issue on a social basis. Ever.

MCN: How did it go with the D.C. Circuit? Did they seem interested?

Lamb:No. No. I don't think they are.

MCN: Do you suspect that we'll have broader audio coverage in the Supreme Court before cameras?

Lamb: Absolutely. That happens in every institution. That's the way it happened in the House and the Senate. People are more comfortable easing into this process with audio, and Chief Justice Roberts has shown us, in our first two requests, that he looks upon the idea very positively. We hope that within the next year or so, we can get them to agree to let us do it on a regular basis all the time.

MCN: Where's the big media in this? Why aren't they doing more to help you?

Lamb: Well, I don't know that they aren't. I mean, the Radio and Television News Directors Association is very active and supportive. They've gone in on their own, they've followed up on some of our requests and supported it.

When it comes to the overall push, I think people ... have for so many years been told no, no, no, and there have been statements like David Souter's, ‘Over my dead body,’ that they've just given up.

MCN: Do you have any plan to rally the bigger media entities to push for cameras into the Supreme Court?

Lamb: We don't, and I don't see that that would make a difference. I think that these nine justices are going to decide when they're ready, on their own terms.

I don't think pressure on them from television networks is going to matter to them. I think they know that everybody will be there when the time comes, and you can overdo it with them.

I've heard justices say ... out loud in the past couple of months that coming in strong with hard-nosed letters and all that stuff isn't what they're looking for.

MCN: What do you want to show Chief Justice Roberts regarding the latest in TV technology?

Lamb:There's really not much to show him, other than that tiny little cameras can do this job.

MCN:Would you actually have to change the lighting in the Court?

Lamb:I don't know that. You could do it without any more light, but everybody would look better if we did a little more light. But the available light works. We've been in there with available light.

MCN: Why haven't you promised live court coverage?

Lamb: There's no place to put live court coverage on a guaranteed basis.

MCN:Even on C-SPAN3?

Lamb:Even on the three, for this reason. We're going to run into a situation where we don't want to lock ourselves down with [C-SPAN3], because there are many times hearings are more important than any session that the court's having.

It's also not as time-sensitive, because [of] what they do in the court during an oral argument. The decision isn't reached often for three or four months, so it's not like in other places, where they're about to vote on something and the public could have some impact on it.

MCN: Why will C‑SPAN take a position on multicast must-carry, but not on Sen. Arlen Specter's (R-Pa.) bill regarding TV coverage of the Supreme Court?

Lamb:Well, it's a toss-up. I mean, we could. But we've tried very hard, when it comes to legislation that directly affects our survival, to take a position. And this is not a case that directly affects our survival. And we just chose, not for any dramatic reason, to leave it alone because it's a question between the House and the Senate and the Supreme Court.

And the other side is that in spite of the fact that I like the fact that Arlen Specter and [Sen. Patrick] Leahy [D-Vt.] and others are agitating on this issue, I think in the end, my own judgment is that it's going to have to be a decision on the part of the Court.

I think the fact that they might pass this legislation is very important and useful, but it's still in the end going to be the decision of the Chief Justice and his eight colleagues.

MCN: Do you think Congress can force cameras into the Supreme Court?

Lamb: I don't know. I really don't know. I mean, depending on whom you talk to, one lawyer will say, ‘Absolutely,’ and the next one will say, ‘Are you kidding?’ We will not know until it happens.

MCN: What if the Court scrapped oral arguments to protest cameras? Or some of the justices just didn't show up because they didn't want to be on camera?

Lamb:That would be their decision. It just would be their decision. I would find it disappointing, and I suspect that wouldn't last long because they have an overall responsibility to the American people to make these decisions.

The interesting thing about it is that they don't have to be in those oral arguments to make the decisions. If that's the message they want to transfer to the public, I think it'd probably be legal and legitimate, and that's just something we'd all have to live with.

MCN: How big a deal would it be for C-SPAN to televise Supreme Court oral arguments?

Lamb: I wouldn't call it a big deal. I would call it an important deal -- important to the public, not to us. It will not change our life at all. It's 80 hours per year. It would be a nice balance to what the public is able to see because that Court has an enormous amount of power in our society and most Americans have no idea whatsoever how it operates and what it looks like.