Senators Fight to Mandate TV in the Supreme Court

Opponents of the "Cameras in the Courtroom" bill urge deference to Supreme Court Justices.

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Want to watch President Obama's signature healthcare law get batted around by the Supreme Court? Well, some senators want to make sure the top U.S. justices get their chance to shine in high-def.

The Senate Judiciary Committee today held a hearing to discuss a bill that would require the Supreme Court to televise all public sessions, unless a majority of justices vote that doing so in a certain case would prevent any party from receiving due process of the law.

The Constitution "makes the government accountable to the people," said Iowa Sen. Chuck Grassley, the ranking Republican on the committee. "The best way that we can assure the federal government is accountable to the people is to create transparency, openness, and access."

[Read about the healthcare law's path through the Supreme Court.]

Advocates say TV access is particularly vital when the Supreme Court is deciding cases that affect Americans' daily lives, like in the upcoming case over the Affordable Care Act, as well as those that affect the political process, like the 2000 Florida recount case that decided George W. Bush would be president.

Minnesota Democratic Sen. Amy Klobuchar said that although transcripts and audio recordings are currently available, reading and listening are not the same as watching interactions between judges and attorneys and observing facial expressions.

"The public has a right to see how the court functions and how it reaches its rulings," Klobuchar said, adding that the couple hundred seats available for public viewing in person are also not enough since most Americans don't live in Washington, D.C. "It shouldn't be a once-in-a-lifetime experience to be able to see the court in action."

The battle is not new. In fact, the committee voted in favor of a similar bill last Congress, and one witness, former Pennsylvania Sen. Arlen Specter, has been advocating for increased public access to the courts for about two decades.

[See a slide show of the members of the Supreme Court.]

But some committee Republicans and witnesses were concerned that going over the justices' heads by mandating cameras could invite a constitutional battle over separation of powers and infringe on the high court's autonomy.

"Whether or not Congress can constitutionally direct a court to have cameras or not, it seems to me that we should take very seriously [justices'] views about it and respect it," explained Alabama Republican Sen. Jeff Sessions. "It's their domain. They don't tell us how to run our offices here."

Opponents of cameras in the courtroom, including some of the justices themselves, say televising proceedings could alter the way judges and attorneys interact during oral arguments. Lawyers could grandstand, they argue, or justices may think twice about how a line of questioning could be taken out of context since they sometimes play devil's advocate.

Sessions expressed the more basic fear: loss of the sense of objectivity. The principle of judging a court based on its rulings "may be less so if [people] like the visage of one judge and not that of another, or the personality of one judge," Sessions said. "To the extent to which it becomes even a little more political, ideological, religious-based, or whatever … is not healthy."

But Klobuchar laughed off the thought that the justices would pander to the cameras.

"I was trying to picture ... Ruth Bader Ginsburg turning into Judge Judy," she said. "I just don't think it's going to happen."

[Read: White House confident of a Supreme Court win on healthcare.]

Specter added that "the public's right to know and the benefit of an informed citizenry vastly outweigh" any of those concerns.

He said that in some cases, like the Citizens United decision which opened the doors to increased corporate political contributions, the court has proved to tilt ideologically one way or the other. Justices could use a bit of accountability, he said. "Sunlight is the best disinfectant."

But lawyer Tom Goldstein, the publisher of SCOTUSblog who has argued several cases before the Supreme Court, urged a middle ground.