Time for Cameras
Those who are interested shouldn't have to line up overnight to watch Supreme Court debates.

Thursday, December 6, 2007

SOME 70 members of the public queued up in frigid conditions early yesterday -- some camping out overnight -- for a chance to witness the historic Supreme Court argument on the rights of detainees held at Guantanamo Bay. Thanks to more progressive thinking of late from the justices, those who couldn't squeeze into the courtroom could listen to the proceedings on C-SPAN or read the transcript released that afternoon. But no one outside the courtroom could watch, because the justices prohibit television cameras in the court.

This is a travesty, especially in a case of such importance. The justices have argued that cameras in the court could lead to grandstanding by lawyers and increase the threat to their own privacy and possibly their security by making them more recognizable. Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, in testimony before Congress last year, obliquely suggested that separation-of-powers concerns could be triggered if Congress tried to require cameras in the court.

These arguments ignore the fact that the court is a public institution, funded with taxpayer money and charged with dispensing legal judgments that can affect everyone. Televising Supreme Court oral arguments could help inform the public how the court functions and might help dispel dangerous and incorrect assumptions about the court. And the justices have already proved that they're perfectly capable of reining in legal histrionics. There's an argument to be made that having cameras in the court makes more sense than allowing an audience in the courtroom; cameras, after all, can't engage in outbursts, but they would allow millions of people, rather than mere dozens, to observe the proceedings.

The Senate Judiciary Committee today once again takes up legislation to allow television cameras in oral arguments at the Supreme Court. The legislation, sponsored in the Senate by Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), calls for the justices to permit coverage of "all open sessions of the Court unless the Court decides, by a vote of the majority of the justices, that allowing such coverage in a particular case would constitute a violation of the due process rights of one or more of the parties." This would provide the justices flexibility of action while giving citizens a glimpse into a marbled world most of them will never be able to experience firsthand.

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