Senators Revive Demand to Put the Supreme Court on TV

Bipartisan proponents say decisions on abortion, death-penalty, health care need greater transparency

The Senate Judiciary subcommittee on Administrative Oversight and the Courts Tuesday took to the airwaves (webcast, that is) to weigh whether Congress should attempt to mandate that the U.S. Supreme Court televise its oral arguments.

The bipartisan “Cameras in the Courtroom Act” bill was introduced Monday by senators Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) and Dick Durbin (D-Illinois).

Proponents say that the real-life consequences of Supreme Court decisions — the 2000 Presidential election, abortion and death-penalty questions, as well as the upcoming health-care law debate — demand that the institution provide far more transparency than the mere 250 seats available in the courtroom.

Grassley said he urged the court to televise its deliberations of Florida recount case that decided the Bush-Gore race via a single justice’s vote. Though the court released audio recordings of its deliberations, Grassley said it was not enough — especially since the court itself declared in 1947 that it is “public property.”

Opponents, however, say the Constitution clearly spells out that each branch of government is responsible for its own rules. Also, cameras could adversely affect the behavior of those involved and the court’s ultimate decision.

Previous attempts to force television cameras on the court have not progressed, and many observers predict the same fate for Grassley and Durbin’s bill.

Republican Pete Sessions (R-Texas) claims that cameras will “undermine objectivity” and reduce the court’s moral authority.

Maureen Mahoney, a former deputy solicitor general, cited former Justice David Souter who said cameras in the New Hampshire Supreme Court had led him to censor his questions while causing lawyers to play to the camera. Current Chief Justice John Roberts, said Mahoney, predicted an increase in attorney “grandstanding” if cameras were allowed in the court.

Judge Anthony Scirica of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit testified that the court already offers lawyer briefs, opinions, transcripts and audio recordings of proceedings in a timely manner.

But subcommittee Chairperson Amy Klobuchar (D-Minnesota) pointed to Justice William Brennan’s words in a 1980 media access case that “the availability of a [court] transcript is no substitute” for being in the actual room with the justices.

Former senator and Judiciary Committee chair Arlen Specter argued that congressional authority “had been eroded by Supreme Court decisions.” He said it was imperative the public have easier access to the court’s deliberations, which have become “ideologically driven at the moment.”

The highest courts in the U.K. and Canada allow cameras, as do many states, noted Iowa Supreme Court Chief Justice Mark Cady. Cady, whose court allows cameras, said he thought such transparency was essential, as a democracy requires a “well informed citizenry.”