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Breyer Noncommittal on Cameras in Court

No justice of the U.S. Supreme Court has endorsed TV cameras inside the high court, and Justice Stephen Breyer kept that tradition alive in a lengthy C-SPAN interview Sunday night.

In a one-hour discussion with C-SPAN founder and CEO Brian Lamb, Breyer explained the pros and cons of the issue from his perspective as a leader of the federal judiciary. While refusing to comment on a Senate bill that would require camera coverage, he called for more research on the subject and suggested that contemporaneous audio coverage -- something the court has allowed a few times in recent years -- could become the electronic media's breakthrough moment.

"We had radio in two cases, I think ... Bush vs. Gore and campaign finance. It was fine. It didn't produce a tremendously negative consequence or reaction," said Breyer, appearing on C-SPAN’s Q&A to promote his new book, Active Liberty.

TV coverage of the Supreme Court gained attention in September during the confirmation hearings of U.S. Chief Justice John Roberts, who didn't totally dismiss the idea.

Soon thereafter, Senate Judiciary Committee chairman Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) introduced a bill that would require camera coverage, with limited exceptions. Specter's bill omitted some key details, such as whether the high court had to permit live coverage.

Pressed by Lamb to address the Specter bill, Breyer refused.

"There you're going into an area which I'm very hesitant to talk about simply because of my current job and because it's a matter of public debate at the moment. So I can't go into it," said Breyer, appointed in 1994 by President Clinton.

Breyer said the court had a “conservative reaction, with a small ‘c,’” to cameras because none of the justices wanted to tarnish the court's reputation. That trial courts might follow the Supreme Court's example, he added, was also problematic.

"The risk might be with some jurors that they are afraid they will be identified on television and, thus, could become the victims of a crime," he said.

Lamb testified in November before Specter's panel, but he did not take a position on the legislation. Court TV chairman and CEO Henry Schleiff, who also testified, supported Specter's bill and bills applicable to the lower federal courts.

The cameras issue is likely to resurface in early January when Supreme Court nominee Samuel Alito goes before the Judiciary Committee.

Asked how the court arrived at a decision about cameras, Breyer didn't know whether it would take just a simple majority of the nine justices, mainly because they hadn't even discussed it as a group. He indicated that a 5-4 vote over strong opposition was unlikely. Justice David Souter has said that cameras would have to roll over his dead body.

"We haven't actually taken a vote. I mean, most things you can decide 5-4, but sometimes people will say, ‘Well, I think this is such a change that you need a larger majority,’ or, ‘I wouldn't want to vote this way if I thought there were four people who wanted the opposite,’” Breyer said.