Nets Seek High Court Access


Washington— C-SPAN founder and CEO Brian Lamb expressed frustration with a U.S. Supreme Court that insists on being opaque about letting cameras record oral arguments.

“You really can’t find out what the Supreme Court members think about television,” Lamb said. “You never can really find out if they ever voted on it or not.”

Lamb appeared last Wednesday before the Senate Judiciary Committee, whose chairman Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) is pushing a bill that would force the Supreme Court to accept cameras.

“Obviously, if the Supreme Court decides that as a matter of separation of powers it is not a congressional prerogative, we will not petition for a re-hearing. That will be the judicial decision which we respect since Marbury v. Madison,” Specter said.

Lamb wasn’t there to endorse Specter’s bill or similar legislation passed by the House last week that would allow federal judges to let in cameras. Instead, Lamb delivered a promise.

“If the Supreme Court will ever allow its oral arguments on television, we will carry all of them from start to finish,” Lamb said. “We’ll find a place to put them all.”

Lamb did not commit to live coverage, owing to prior commitments to televise House and Senate proceedings on C-SPAN and C-SPAN2, respectively.

Supreme Court justices have, in fact, addressed the television issue, usually arguing that less than comprehensive coverage would diminish the institution’s popular esteem built up over centuries. Some justices fear losing their relative anonymity despite the enormous power they wield.

“There are a number of people who want to make us part of the national entertainment network,” Justice Anthony Kennedy said last Thursday.

Specter introduced his bill in late September, soon after John Roberts, during his confirmation hearings to be U.S. Chief Justice, did not dismiss out of hand television coverage of the roughly 80 hourlong oral arguments that occur during a court term.

Testifying after Lamb, Court TV chairman and CEO Henry Schleiff, himself a lawyer and former federal law clerk, endorsed legislation allowing cameras in all federal courts, subject to appropriate safeguards for witnesses and others concerned about being seen on TV.

Diarmuid O’Scannlain, a federal judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit, told Specter’s panel that camera coverage would be appropriate in appellate courts but not necessarily in trial courts, buttressing concerns expressed by U.S. Judge Jan Dubois.

Dubois, citing responses from federal judges that participated in a television pilot program in 1994, said that cameras made some witnesses nervous, some distracted and some unwilling to appear.

Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) agreed that a blanket right of televised coverage of civil and criminal trials would be problematic.

“I know a lot of TV networks would like to see this occur. I respect what they do and respect the work they perform, but my feeling at this point is that we should be very careful about this,” Sessions said.