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 News Washington news editor Ted Hearn, Lamb explains 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?
Brian Lamb: Well, in my personal opinion, it’s strictly a matter of education for the American people. There’s 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 [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?
BL: 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 a 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 the decisions are made behind closed doors that we have not asked to get cameras in and 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, you know, 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 clearly is 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: Are we on the verge of a breakthrough regarding cameras in the Supreme Court?
BL: I have absolutely no idea. My gut tells me we’re not. That 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?
BL: 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?
BL: 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 the Irish-America magazine, an interview with [Justice] William Brennan, where he said that — this is my understanding, I’ve never seen it, but it was explained to me — they had a vote and it was 8 to 1, and he was the one.
MCN: Do you know any of these justices socially where around a cocktail or something you’ve been able to discuss this with them?
BL: 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?
BL: No. I don’t think they are.