Specter: Televise the High Court

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According to one prominent lawmaker, the U.S. Supreme Court is ready for its close-up.

On Sept. 26, as the John Roberts nomination neared a Senate vote, Judiciary Committee chairman Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) introduced a bill that would require the Supreme Court to open its doors to TV cameras.

“It is very much in the public interest, in my view, to have the Supreme Court televised,” said Specter, who unveiled the bill while addressing the Roberts nomination on the Senate floor.

PROGRAMMING FODDER

If the bill became law, it would likely represent hundreds of hours of new programming for C-SPAN, Court TV and other cable networks dedicated to covering the law and the courts.

“C-SPAN believes that the Supreme Court oral arguments should be televised,” said Bruce Collins, the public-affairs network’s corporate vice president and general counsel.

Televised coverage of the hearings on Roberts’s nomination to be Chief Justice of the United States revived interest in the cameras-in-the-courts issue and the role of courts in society, Specter said.

With the court largely viewed as a “super legislature” that has the last word on so many fundamental issues — from abortion to gun control to assisted suicide to the death penalty — the court had to “allow sunlight to shine brightly on these proceedings and ensure public awareness and scrutiny,” Specter said.

Norman Ornstein, a congressional scholar with the American Enterprise Institute, called the Specter bill “foolish,” saying Congress had no business trying to force cameras into the courtroom.

“I think it really is a decision for the court to make,” Ornstein said. “It’s really not far from the Congress forcing the President to open up his Cabinet meetings to the public.”

Assuming the Specter bill became law over the court’s objections, Ornstein said, there wouldn’t be litigation in which the Supreme Court had to hire a lawyer to sue the United States in U.S. District Court.

“The chief justice, who is really the spokesman for the courts and the administrator of the courts, is going to stand up and say, 'No, and shame on you,’ ” he said.

In recent years, the court has heard oral arguments in about 75 cases, with each side getting 30 minutes to make its point. Weeks or months later, the court announces its decisions in the form of written explanations called opinions, dissents or concurrences.

Traditionally, the justices have barred cameras and tape recorders, though audio recordings made by the court are available to the press and public several months later.

In special circumstances, the high court has released audio recordings moments after an oral argument, a prominent example being the Bush v. Gore case that settled the 2000 Presidential election.

In prepared remarks, Specter said that allowing print coverage of the court while banning electronic media probably represented unacceptable discrimination against a wing of the American media.

“I have long felt that the court ought to be televised,” Specter said.

Over the years, justices have complained that TV coverage would distort the public’s image of the court, especially if complicated cases were reduced to short sound bites on the nightly news.

Justice Antonin Scalia and David Souter have strongly opposed cameras, a position shared by the late Chief Justice William Rehnquist, whom the 50-year-old Roberts, a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, was nominated to replace.

C-SPAN, however, has promised to televise every second of oral arguments, consistent with its dedication to long-form political-affairs coverage. Although Supreme Court coverage would not produce enough hours of programming to anchor a new channel, it would represent valuable, marquee programming nonetheless.

“There is only one Supreme Court of the United States,” Collins said.

C-SPAN’S AGNOSTIC

C-SPAN, which started airing live House proceedings in 1979, is remaining neutral regarding the means by which TV coverage of the court becomes a reality.

“We’re agnostic on that point,” Collins said. “We don’t want to get into a debate over separation of powers.”

The Radio-Television News Directors Association, though, sent Specter a letter last Tuesday endorsing his bill.

Court TV chairman and CEO Henry Schleiff said his cable network also supported the Specter bill.

“We do want to be supportive. Part of our mission at Court TV is transparency,” Schleiff said.

Although Court TV would cover cases with wide public interest, it would skip those involving dry subjects like tax and administrative law, he said.

“Those we’d be happy to leave to C-SPAN,” Schleiff quipped.

Specter’s bill would allow the court to cut off TV coverage if a majority of the justices believed the due process rights of at least one party would be violated.

Congress has the authority, through legislation, to determine the size of the court and the number of justices necessary to constitute a quorum, Specter said, adding that mandating TV coverage was consistent with that authority.

Uttering something of a truism, Specter said that the Supreme Court would retain authority to declare his bill as unconstitutional intrusion on a coequal branch of government.

“If the Supreme Court should decide that legislation enacted by the Congress to call for [it] being televised was violative of the constitution, they would have the final word,” Specter said.

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