A split Senate Judiciary Committee voted 12-6 Thursday for a bill that would force the U.S. Supreme Court to televise its oral arguments.
The nine-member court has never permitted TV or radio coverage.
The bill, sponsored by Judiciary chairman Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), would require camera coverage in all instances except when the court determines that the due-process rights of a party would be violated.
“Because the Supreme Court of the United States holds the power to decide cutting-edge questions on public policy, thereby effectively becoming a virtual ‘super legislature,’ the public has a right to know what the Supreme Court is doing,” Specter said in a statement after the vote.
A Specter spokesman didn’t know his strategy for taking the bill to the Senate floor.
The Specter bill could trigger an institutional fight. No sitting Supreme Court justice has endorsed televised coverage, and many justices have argued that the court’s role in society would be distorted and its carefully protected reputation would be tarnished.
At his confirmation hearing in January, Justice Samuel Alito related that as a member of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit, he voted to admit cameras, but a majority of his colleagues refused. Chief Justice John Roberts, during his Senate hearing, was noncommittal.
Opposition to the Specter bill involved a rare alliance among liberal Democrats Edward Kennedy (Mass.) and Diane Feinstein (Calif.) and conservative Republicans Orrin Hatch (Utah), Jon Kyl (Ariz.), Jeff Sessions (Ala.) and Tom Coburn (Okla.).
The Judiciary Committee, in a 10-6 vote, also approved a second bill (S. 829) sponsored by Sens. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) and Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) that would authorize Chief Justice Roberts and other presiding judges in lower federal courts to permit TV coverage.
Court TV considers the Grassley-Schumer bill more valuable because it would improve access to criminal trials in federal courts. A similar bill has passed the House Judiciary Committee.
“The [Senate] committee has reflected the will of the people who want to be able to see and hear the third branch of their government for themselves. We hope the full Senate will now pass this bill, which will not only provide important educational benefits, but will also increase confidence in the American system of justice,” Court TV CEO Henry Schleiff said in a prepared statement.
C-SPAN, the public-affairs network created by cable, has pressed the Supreme Court to admit cameras, promising to televise in full every oral argument. The court hears about 80 cases in a term. C-SPAN has not endorsed legislation.
“These bills indicate that at least Congress is interested in opening up the federal judiciary by televising court proceedings, and C-SPAN agrees with that goal. But it is also clear to us that the federal courts, particularly the Supreme Court, are much less interested in allowing camera coverage,” C-SPAN corporate vice president Bruce Collins said.