Forget TV, let’s put the Supreme Court on YouTube

The Supreme Court is now on YouTube — sort of. A clandestine video from the court has turned up on the popular video-sharing platform, showing moments of last week’s outbursts in which protestors harangued the Justices about a controversial decision about corporate free speech.

The protestors were hauled away and charged (predictably) with making “a harangue,” but the video remains, thereby ensuring that all three branches of government are now on YouTube: Congress, of course, is all over the platform while the President has used it of late to distribute speeches and to kibitz with homegrown YouTube stars.

While last week’s Supreme Court video is short and shows little of consequence, it does add a new dimension to the on-again-off-again debate over whether to allow cameras in the courtroom.

That debate, which pits principles of judicial decorum versus those of democratic access, has always focused on cameras as they are defined by network TV — and not the next generation of camera technology represented by YouTube and the internet.

What’s the difference? For one thing, distributing Supreme Court arguments over YouTube is even more democratic than using TV. There’s no chance that one or two network will use their camera access to serve up choice soundbites that could sensationalize or misrepresent the overall arguments at stake (which is a favorite argument among camera opponents). Instead, all of the arguments will be available for anyone to watch or excerpt as they see fit.

And rather than debasing the debate, YouTube offers the Supreme Court a chance to elevate it by letting law schools, teachers and everyone else see the country’s best lawyers debate same sex marriage and the country’s most pressing legal questions. And as Dahlia Lithwick pointed out, in a well-curated 2011 debate over cameras, the Justices are already seen on TV — often at their worst:

It’s not like we don’t currently televise the Justices. We televise them dodging and evading at their confirmation hearings. We televise them clapping and sitting stonily at State of the Union speeches. We televise them ambling about the court when they have a book or pet project to promote. The only thing we don’t televise is them doing the sober serious hard work of talking about cases. Instead of seeing them at their best we see canned images of them acting as cartoon versions of themselves.

Her argument addressed TV, but the same reasoning is all the stronger when it comes to the internet.

Instead, by shutting out YouTube and other video platforms, the Supreme Court is simply underscoring its out of touch approach to technology, which was underscored in a recent report published by Chief Justice John Roberts that praised the court’s ongoing preference for paper.

While Roberts was right to argue that the Supreme Court should not be subject to popular fads about technology, the court’s docket today is seeing more and more tech-related cases, and will soon include appeals over meta-data and mass surveillance. Now, of all times, it makes sense to use technology to open the doors to the public about what is going on.

Finally, the best reason for the Supreme Court to embrace YouTube is the most simple one: to uphold the common law maxim that “not only must Justice be done; it must also be seen to be done.” Just as courtrooms are open to the public, they should be open to the internet.

Given the sorry state of the judiciary’s IT system, I have little hope that the Supreme Court will take up this opportunity anytime soon. As a result, YouTube will continue to show the Justices when they are ridiculous (see John Oliver’s doggy judges below), but never when they’re sublime: