Public approves of live access to Supreme Court arguments, polls show
on May 21, 2020 at 3:20 pm
In May, for the first time in its history, the Supreme Court provided live audio of its oral arguments to the public due to the COVID-19 pandemic. That move appears to enjoy broad support.
According to two polls released before and after the May arguments, a significant majority of Americans across the ideological spectrum believe the public should have live access to judicial proceedings. Both survey samples were similar in make-up, polling between 1,000-1,500 participants with a wide variance in geographic location, racial composition, education level, age and political leaning.
The first survey was administered by professors Ryan Black, Timothy Johnson, Ryan Owens and Justin Wedeking in late April, soon after the court announced on April 13 that it would hear 10 cases via telephonic oral argument with live audio. The poll specifically focused on the further step to live video that other courts had taken during the pandemic. 67 percent of those polled agreed with the statement that “all courts should allow cameras into the courtroom so that anyone who wants to watch oral argument can do so,” with support from 71 percent of Democrats, 68 percent of Republicans and 61 percent of Independents.
The second survey, released Wednesday, was conducted by Fix the Court and PSB from May 15-18 after the arguments with live audio had concluded. It found significant approval of the court’s chosen path: 83 percent of those polled agreed with the decision to provide live audio during the pandemic, and 70 percent believed the court should continue with live audio once things return to normal. Both propositions enjoyed even endorsement among Democrats, Republicans and Independents.
In addition to the support for live access to oral arguments found by both polls, the streams themselves were quite popular. As of Tuesday evening, according to the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, nearly 2 million people had tuned into streams of the various arguments, with over 500,000 streams of the first argument on May 4 in a trademark dispute involving Booking.com, and nearly one million streams of the high-profile arguments on May 12 over subpoenas for President Donald Trump’s financial records.
Whether the support for and popularity of this month’s experiment with live audio will influence the court’s decision to continue providing live audio in the future is an open question. The court may keep the current argument format if the coronavirus threat remains present in October. Eventually, though, the pandemic will end. It seems safe to say that the justices will return to in-person arguments once they can. The jury is still out on whether they will leave live audio behind when that occurs.