Cameras Headed To Court?

Bill Would Put Supremes on Air

Posted September 19, 2005 at 7:02pm

For the past 20 years, every time a vacancy arises in the Supreme Court, C-SPAN General Counsel Bruce Collins is teased by the possibility that new blood on the bench might mean the highest court in the land would reconsider its stance on allowing cameras into its halls.

But while Collins waits, hoping the court’s two new justices will allow proceedings to be televised, the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee is ready to force the matter.

According to a GOP Congressional source close to the issue, Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) — who has said that Congress legally has authority over court administration issues — intends to drop new legislation, possibly as early as this week, that will push for opening the Supreme Court to television cameras.

Specter had discussed the possibility of a bill at last week’s hearings on Judge John Roberts’ nomination to be chief justice when the issue was brought up by Members on both sides of the aisle.

On Wednesday, Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) pointedly asked Roberts if he was against cameras in the courtroom “like Justice [William] Rehnquist was.”

“Well, you know, my new best friend, [former] Sen. [Fred] Thompson [R-Tenn.], assures me that television cameras are nothing to be afraid of,” Roberts responded. “But I don’t have a set view on that. I do think it’s something that I would want to listen to the views of — if I were confirmed — to my colleagues.”

On Tuesday, Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.) also asked Roberts about the issue and made clear his support for cameras in the Supreme Court.

“Americans can watch virtually every significant event of national importance on television, except for oral arguments and announcement of decisions at the Supreme Court,” Feingold said. “If you are confirmed, you will essentially disappear from public view … The possibility of televising trials raises some complicated issues, because we have to consider the safety and rights of criminal defendants and witnesses and jurors, but such concerns are not so present in the case of appellate proceedings … I think it would benefit the country and the court if all Americans had a chance to see the court conduct its work.”

But with Roberts noncommittal, Collins — who first worked to get the Supreme Court to open its oral arguments to C-SPAN and other network audiences in 1985 and has continued to push for cameras in the court several times in the past two decades — continues to wait.

“We’ve got so much experience with these bursts of interest in this issue that never go anywhere that we’re taking a ‘wait and see’ attitude,” Collins said. “If there seems to be a serious interest this time we will definitely follow up by restating our many-year-old commitment to air every minute of every oral argument of every court term and we would be in the middle of these efforts to ensure they happen.”

For the past four years, Grassley and several other Senate co-sponsors have been pushing the Sunshine in the Courtroom Act. The bill, which was reintroduced to the 109th Congress in April, would give full discretion to the presiding judge of a case as to whether cameras or recording devices would be allowed during proceedings in federal trial and appellate courts, including the Supreme Court. In appellate courts, the most senior active judge — the chief justice in the case of the Supreme Court — would have discretion on the issue.

It’s not yet clear how Specter’s new bill would differ from Grassley’s, but in an interview earlier this month on C-SPAN’s “Q & A” that was filmed before Rehnquist’s death, Specter said that pushing for cameras in the Supreme Court was something he had been wanting to move forward with for a long time. He said he hadn’t done so “out of deference to Chief Justice Rehnquist.”

“I think Congress has the authority to say there ought to be television of the Supreme Court,” Specter had said. “Nobody can tell them how to decide cases. But Congress decides, for example, how many justices there will be … We established time limits. We say when they start to sit on the first Monday in October, and I think, on an administrative matter, that the Supreme Court is subject to a Congressional determination.

“Now they may disagree with this and say, ‘It’s an invasion of separation of powers.’ I don’t think it is,” Specter said. “But they decide so many cases five to four on the cutting edge. And I think that it would be very helpful for the public to have a great understanding as to what they do.”

While C-SPAN’s Collins agreed that Congress does have the authority to pass legislation to open the Supreme Court to cameras, he said that “in the end, I can’t see the Congress forcing the Supreme Court” to allow cameras in.

And even if Roberts were to come out in favor of cameras in the court and gets confirmed as chief justice, “as a new chief getting his sea legs, so to speak, I don’t think he’s going to cause trouble over the issue of television.

“I don’t think this is a policy issue that can be won on points and authorities, it’ll be a personal decision on the part of the judges. And I don’t think it’ll be a five-four decision, I think it’ll have to be a nine-zero decision.”

But Henry Schleiff, Court TV CEO, who has been looking to open federal courts to television cameras since the network’s founding in 1991 and, like C-SPAN, would carry the court’s oral arguments gavel to gavel, said he thought that Roberts’ statements at last week’s hearings exhibited a fresh sort of open-mindedness to the issue.

“We were encouraged to hear the modern thinking by what is clearly a modern jurist taking a more modern approach,” Schleiff said.

Schleiff said Court TV has actively supported Grassley’s bill in the past and is in the midst of preparing letters to Roberts, Specter and other Judiciary Committee members to lobby on its behalf.

But Collins said he remains skeptical.

“In 1985 when we started on this, C-SPAN and others, if you’d asked me then if we would have had cameras in the Supreme Court in the next 20 years, I would have said ‘well certainly,’ because the Court would change its membership and it would have new justices with new views on it,” Collins said. “All I can tell you is that the generational change seems to be slower than we thought earlier. There might be a possibility that we might get them but I’m not going to put a date on it.”