Outbursts at the Supreme Court are rare, but video recordings of the justices in session are unheard of.
That changed when a protest during a court session was captured in shaky footage and posted on the Internet Thursday, thrusting the high court’s long-standing ban on cameras in the courtroom into the spotlight.
The clip, uploaded on YouTube and acknowledged as authentic by the court, is the first known video of a Supreme Court proceeding to be made public.
From the vantage point of someone in the audience, the recording shows footage of the justices sitting on the bench and of 33-year-old Noah Kai Newkirk as he stood up and disrupted Wednesday’s oral arguments to urge the court to overturn its 2010 Citizens United decision, which struck down limits on political spending by corporations and unions. The last notable disruption came during a 2006 abortion case.
Mr. Newkirk, from Los Angeles, was arrested under a federal law prohibiting “a harangue or oration” in the high court and held overnight. He pleaded not guilty in a District of Columbia court Thursday to three misdemeanor charges and was released. He faces a maximum penalty of 60 days in jail and a $5,000 fine.
A group known as 99Rise, which describes itself as “a network of activists and organizers dedicated to building a mass movement to reclaim our democracy from the domination of big money,” has taken credit for the video.
The footage begins by noting that it remains against court rules to record proceedings. “What you’re about to see has never been seen before,” the video states. “Under their arcane rules, no one is allowed to record the proceedings. Not even C-span…in the year 2014.”
The short clip seems to contain snippets from two separate oral arguments. The first half of the video is made up of deliberations on McCutcheon v. FEC, a still-pending case that will determine whether limits on contributions to federally elected political candidates constitutes a “burden on speech and association.”
The second half is footage from another oral argument in an unrelated patent case. At this point in the video a protester stands up and urges the court to overturn Citizens United, a polarizing 2010 decision that greatly increased how much money corporations are allowed to donate to candidates.
“I rise on behalf of the vast majority of the American people who believe that money is not speech, corporations are not people, and our democracy should not be available to the highest bidder,” Newkirk says. “Overturn Citizens United. Keep the cap in McCutcheon. The people demand democracy.”
Reached by phone on Thursday night, Newkirk confirmed that 99Rise had been able to smuggle at least one concealed camera into the courtroom. He declined to say who else was involved in the scheme and how it was carried out.
“I’m glad it’s helping us to elevate the issue,” he said in reference the media attention the group is now receiving. Newkirk, a long-time progressive activist, said 99Rise was formed by a small group of people in Los Angeles who were inspired by the Occupy Wall Street protests prompted by concerns that corporations had too much influence on public life.
Spectators and reporters are required to leave most personal belongings behind, before attending court sessions. That includes cameras, phones and other electronic devices as well as hats, overcoats, books, magazines and briefcases.
The Supreme Court has resisted pressure to allow camera’s in the courtroom, maintaining that their presence would disrupt the give-and-take between the justices and lawyers arguing cases. Retired Justice David Souter in 1996, before the Internet and smartphone booms took place, said: “The day you see a camera come into our courtroom, it’s going to roll over my dead body.”
A court spokeswoman told various media outlets that the court is aware that a video was taken. “Court officials are in the process of reviewing the video and our courtroom screening procedures,” Supreme Court spokeswoman Kathleen Arberg said.
Recording is against the court rules but not a violation of the law.
This is all more than a little ironic since the case Mr. Newkirk was protesting — Citizens United— was won on anti-censorship free speech grounds.
One has to presume it wasn’t a rogue court reporter editing for the fun of it who removed the protest from the official record last week. We’re finally through the looking glass where the Supreme Court that holds itself out as protecting the freedom to speak has been caught red handed cutting a civil protest from history. Without the protestors’ own video and the quick court artist, there might little evidence that it happened at all.
As recently as last week a group of professional press organizations released an ad voicing their objection to the video ban within the court’s chambers.
“The Supreme Court’s decisions impact the lives of Americans everywhere, but only a privileged few get to witness history and see justice in action,” says an ad put out by the Coalition for Court Transparency.
“Leading Republicans and Democrats and a large majority of Americans support a simple fix – putting cameras in the Supreme Court.”