A Renewed Call to Televise High Court

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By Robert Barnes
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, February 12, 2007

With Supreme Court justices becoming increasingly comfortable in the spotlight, Sen. Arlen Specter says it might finally be time for their close-ups.

Spector (Pa.), joined by two other Republican and three Democratic senators, has refiled his legislation to require the court to televise its proceedings. Although getting the rest of Congress to agree still seems very much a long shot, Specter said there is a big difference between now and last year, when the bill did not reach the Senate floor.

"I think the frequency with which the justices are appearing on television can be a very significant factor" in changing minds in Congress, Specter said in an interview.

There is no doubt that the once-cloistered justices are making themselves more available to the media, giving on-the-record interviews with newspapers and magazines and popping up on television. Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. starred in PBS's recent look at the history of the court.

Specter, former chairman of the Judiciary Committee and sometimes a sharp critic of the court, said the individual justices have been "extensively televised."

"Chief Justice Roberts and Justice [John Paul] Stevens were on . . . on ABC TV," Specter said in introducing the bill on the Senate floor. "Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg was on CBS with Mike Wallace. Justice [Stephen G.] Breyer was on 'Fox News Sunday.' Justice [Antonin] Scalia and Justice Breyer had an extensive debate last December, which is available for viewing on the Web -- and in television archives.

"So there has been very extensive participation by court members, which totally undercuts one of the arguments [against the bill]: that the notoriety would imperil the security of Supreme Court justices."

More substantive arguments -- that cameras would alter the deliberative nature of the court or that lawyers would play to television rather than answer the justices' questions -- are overruled by the importance of increasing the public's knowledge of the court, Specter said.

The court makes monumental decisions -- who lives and dies, in some cases, and in 2000, who should occupy the Oval Office -- but is a mystery to most Americans, Specter said.

"It is, I think, fundamental that the court's work, the court's operation, ought to be more broadly understood," Specter said in his floor speech. "That can be achieved by television."

While the Supreme Court is the most insular of the nation's public institutions, justices like to say they are already the most open. Every piece of paper that comes to the court -- petitions, briefs, decisions -- is a public document, justices say, and they contend that they are the only public officials who must explain the decisions they make.

"We're judged ultimately by what we write," Justice Anthony M. Kennedy told a congressional committee last year -- not on the oral arguments or the private conferences at which justices vote on decisions.


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© 2007 The Washington Post Company

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