AT HIS CONFIRMATION hearings, Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. gave hope that he might be more open to letting television cameras into the Supreme Court chamber than was his predecessor. He did, however, say that he "would want to listen to the views of . . . my colleagues" on the subject. Unfortunately, some of his colleagues remain unalterably opposed. Justice David H. Souter declared in 1996 that "the day you see a camera come into our courtroom, it's going to roll over my dead body." More recently, in a rare interview this month, Justice Antonin Scalia was equally dismissive. "Not a chance," he told NBC, "because we don't want to become entertainment. . . . I think there's something sick about making entertainment out of real people's legal problems. I don't like it in the lower courts, and I don't particularly like it in the Supreme Court."
Call us sick; we disagree. Broadcasting Supreme Court oral arguments is not just entertainment, any more than is C-SPAN's coverage of important congressional proceedings. Nor is public interest in them a reflection of prurient obsession with other people's legal problems. Justice Scalia, after all, is not Judge Judy. Oral arguments in federal appeals courts represent some of the most stirring and educational events that take place in American government -- a time when the rule of law is actually being applied and debated.
Yet the court almost willfully keeps the public away. Even for those who live in Washington, seats are limited by the size of the chamber. The court makes audiotapes of oral arguments but doesn't typically release them for months, making them irrelevant to the public's real-time interest in a case. Even the transcript of the proceeding can be delayed for weeks. Want to know what happens at next week's oral arguments next week? Tough. You'll have to learn about it through what President Bush might call the filter of the press. Coverage of oral arguments, in fact, is often first-rate. But even at its best, it cannot convey all of the nuances of a complicated legal argument.
Both the new chief justice and Congress, where legislation is brewing, should take a fresh look at this question. In particularly high-profile cases, the court has sometimes made audiotapes available promptly. At a minimum this practice should be made routine, as should the timely release of a transcript. One way or another, the public should get access to proceedings that are supposed to be public.