Come May 4, the Erik Wemple Blog has a chance to play a small role in media history. Simply by turning on our C-SPAN Radio app, we’ll be able to listen to a live Supreme Court oral argument. Not an oral argument that had already taken place, mind you, but one that’s happening in real time.

Sorry for the repetition, but this is a breakthrough. “In keeping with public health guidance in response to COVID-19, the Justices and counsel will all participate remotely,” the Supreme Court signaled in an announcement Monday. “The Court anticipates providing a live audio feed of these arguments to news media. Details will be shared as they become available.” The teleconferencing/live coverage arrangement spans six days in early May.

Yes, the move by the court to do oral arguments via teleconferencing technology is an important, newsworthy one. But Bruce Collins, corporate vice president and general counsel for C-SPAN, insists that “it’s more significant that they decided to allow live coverage.”

Spoken like a true C-SPAN guy. The network has badgered the court over and over for decades to open its doors to television cameras and, thus, to the American public — not just the few with the resources to travel to Washington, wait in line and file into the chambers. In late 2000, for example, Collins walked a letter from then-C-SPAN CEO Brian Lamb to the court petitioning for the opportunity to televise the oral arguments in Bush v. Gore. Other outlets — including CNN and MSNBC — also pressured the court. The court, in a first, released an audiotape of the session, but only after it had concluded.

When it comes to media access, the Supreme Court isn’t bound by precedent. Twenty-seven times over the past two decades, the court has released same-day audio, but it generally waits until the end of the week to release audio of oral arguments from the preceding days. In a world where taxpayers turn on their devices to watch Congress, other courts’ proceedings, county government meetings and so on, the high court’s stinginess is unacceptable — but unassailable. “They can do anything they want,” says Collins, noting that the court’s motives for its change of heart are unclear. “I understand why they decided to do a teleconference for oral arguments. … What we don’t know is why they decided to make it available on a live basis.”

Collins adds, “We welcome it, and we see it as a step in the right direction.”

There are 10 sets of cases designated for this new arrangement, among them the disputes over subpoenas for President Trump’s financial records and a Trump administration rule — currently on hold — granting exemptions for religious reasons from Obamacare’s requirement to include birth control in health insurance.

Collins says C-SPAN and other media outlets/organizations were preparing to ask the Supreme Court for live audio of the Trump tax-return oral arguments. Then the court delayed that session, originally scheduled for March 31.

That major news outfits are reduced to petitioning the court just for live audio exposes the incremental misery of this transparency struggle. Collins, 69, was at C-SPAN back in 1988, when a Washington lawyer and reps from news networks orchestrated a trial run for TV cameras in the Supreme Court itself. “At the private demonstration last November, [Chief Justice William H.] Rehnquist and Justices Anthony M. Kennedy and Byron R. White observed new, small cameras operating in their courtroom using available light,” noted a 1989 Post story on the test. “At the time, one small video camera was tucked into an alcove of the ornate chamber to focus on the justices. The second camera, under the justices’ bench, was focused on the podium where lawyers argue their cases.”

Recalls Collins: “The goal at the time was to make the point that television coverage of the court could be unobtrusive, and, at the time, we thought that was the principal objection.”

Actually, it was just one of many very weak objections — among them, that lawyers and justices would play to the cameras, that the broadcast networks would play short snippets, robbing these solemn proceedings of context, and on and on.

Live audio, of course, has its own drawback, which boils down to one question: Who is speaking? C-SPAN spokesman Howard Mortman tells the Erik Wemple Blog that a producer “is going to be listening to past arguments during the next couple of weeks to become even more familiar with the voices to be able to recognize them quickly.” With a lack of transparency comes a lack of efficiency.

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