IN MARCH, the Supreme Court is scheduled to hear one of its most important cases in years: a constitutional challenge to President Obama’s signature health-care program.
The case should also be its most closely watched — literally. It would be a fitting vehicle for the court’s first televised argument.
We have long urged the justices to allow cameras in the court. Supreme Court arguments generally focus on issues of national importance, typically involve the best lawyers in the country and rarely, if ever, raise the kinds of privacy or safety concerns that crop up in lower courts, where the identity of witnesses and jurors may sometimes need to be shielded.
The court has firmly resisted, arguing that allowing televised proceedings could compromise decorum and change the nature of the sedate proceedings because lawyers — and perhaps even justices — might be tempted to ham it up. Some critics worry that broadcasts could encourage outbursts from audience members. Others say that cameras would make justices more recognizable to the public, increasing security concerns and infringing on privacy. Still others worry that media outlets could take sound bites out of context. Finally, some believe that the public would not be able to make sense of the complicated proceedings.
These are not arguments for banning cameras; they are arguments for banning virtually all coverage of the court and the justices. No reasonable person would accept that.
It is hard to imagine the court losing control over its proceedings. Imagine the embarrassment — and the risk to future business — for a grandstanding advocate who has to be reined in by the justices. Worse yet, such foolishness could in some instances cost lawyers their case if they fail to address and rebut substantive concerns about the matter at hand. And there is a simple cure for that rare lawyer who refuses to stop the antics: loss of argument time or removal from the court.
C-SPAN, which provides an invaluable service by televising congressional hearings and other public affairs programming, has offered to broadcast the health-care proceedings, which have been allotted 5½ hours of argument time. “We believe the public interest is best served by live television coverage of this particular oral argument,” C-SPAN Chairman Brian P. Lamb wrote in a Nov. 15 letter to Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. “It is a case which will affect every American’s life, our economy, and will certainly be an issue in the upcoming presidential campaign.”
If a live broadcast is objectionable, the justices should allow the proceedings to be taped for broadcast later. And if that’s too much, the justices at least should permit live audio broadcast of the argument or, as they have done with other high-profile cases in recent years, agree to a same-day release of the audio recording of the proceedings. The fortunate few who are able to secure seats in the courtroom should not be the only witnesses to history.