Big cases on high court docket highlight need to allow cameras

WHEN THE Supreme Court announced on Tuesday that it would reconsider its position on affirmative action at public universities - a legal flashpoint since the 1970s - it caught the attention of millions of Americans. With a test of President Obama’s health care overhaul already on the docket for April, the coming term promises to be one of the most consequential in memory.

It would be a fine chance for the public to learn how the Constitution is applied to legal disputes, and to demystify the court. But the court’s own rectitude - emblemized by its refusal to allow cameras to record public hearings - is getting in the way.

For an institution that has brought so much transformation to American life, the Supreme Court has been remarkably resistant to a change. In the age of C-SPAN, which has brought television coverage to the halls of Congress and the executive branch, the court remains a lonely holdout. “The day you see a camera come into our courtroom,’’ former Supreme Court Justice David Souter said in 1996, “it’s going to roll over my dead body.’’ That view has been echoed by justices across the spectrum, from the conservative Antonin Scalia to liberal Stephen Breyer.


The case against televising the Supreme Court is unconvincing: Lawyers might showboat for the cameras, some justices have objected. Clips from oral arguments might be used out of context. But the same clips have long been available in audio form, and haven’t caused a ruckus. Far more likely, giving viewers a chance to witness oral arguments would enhance respect for the Constitution, the court, and its procedures.

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But even if the TV cameras did prompt some negative comments, that’s to be expected in a democratic society. Openness is a staple of the American system of government. Interest in Supreme Court cases is intense; rarely is there an empty seat in the courtroom. Yet relatively few Americans understand how cases are conducted. As a matter of civic education, allowing millions of citizens to see how competing legal and ideological worldviews contend at the pinnacle of the nation’s judiciary would be invaluable.

Happily, change may be coming. On an 11-7 vote, the Senate Judiciary Committee earlier this month approved a bill, co-sponsored by Illinois Democrat Richard Durbin and Iowa Republican Charles Grassley, that would require TV coverage of the Supreme Court’s public proceedings. (The justices’ private deliberations would not be affected.) The court’s newest members, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan, have both expressed support for allowing cameras to record Supreme Court arguments.

The Durbin-Grassley legislation ought to pass. “We’ve been waiting and waiting and waiting’’ for permission to cover the court, C-SPAN founder Brian Lamb says. It’s time to roll those cameras into the courtroom.