Court Cams Clear House Hurdle

The final verdict isn’t in, but for the first time, a bill that would allow for live audio from Supreme Court oral arguments — and video from federal appeals courts — has passed a powerful congressional committee, according to advocates for more open courts.

The move, which was supported by both Democrats and Republicans, was advocacy group Fix the Court, which has long pushed for more electronic access.

Cable and broadcast news organizations have also sought access, arguing that it is simply applying new technology to better achieve the Sixth Amendment right to a public trial. C-SPAN has led the cable push for such access.

The House Judiciary Committee (Sept. 13) approved the Judiciary ROOM Act, which would put the electronic public in the room when key cases were being argued. It would also launch a pilot program with the aim of putting exhibits in federal trials — like those the government used to argue that AT&T should not be able to merge with Time Warner — online for all to see. (ROOM is an acronym for reform, organization and operational modernization.)

The chief judge of circuit courts would be allowed to partner with a TV outlet, such as C-SPAN, to comply with the requirement that video of arguments be streamed, but any streamed video would be considered government property and would not be copyright-protected.

The bill would permit same-day audio streaming of Supreme Court arguments in the first year, and live streaming by year two. Circuit courts would get live video in year two. That would include the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, where Judge Brett Kavanaugh is currently seated, though if Republicans get their way — and that is likely — he will soon move to the Supreme Court. The D.C. Circuit is the court of primary jurisdiction over challenges to FCC decisions; it is currently hearing the net neutrality challenge.

The bill also creates an advisory committee that would look for ways to improve public access to the new court broadcasts.

C-SPAN general counsel Bruce Collins said the programmer is ready to partner in the effort.

“If the Supreme Court ever actually live-streams the audio of its oral arguments, whether by legislation or on its own, we will add them to our already extensive coverage,” he told Multichannel News. “We believe the court will only benefit from live coverage of its arguments, as will our audience.”

“A bill to fix the third branch’s opacity has cleared its first hurdle in a refreshingly bipartisan way,” Fix the Court executive director Gabe Roth said.

John Eggerton

Contributing editor John Eggerton has been an editor and/or writer on media regulation, legislation and policy for over four decades, including covering the FCC, FTC, Congress, the major media trade associations, and the federal courts. In addition to Multichannel News and Broadcasting + Cable, his work has appeared in Radio World, TV Technology, TV Fax, This Week in Consumer Electronics, Variety and the Encyclopedia Britannica.