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Let the Sunshine In

For a good part of last week, we watched as the Senate Judiciary Committee quizzed Judge John G. Roberts, the Bush administration’s pick for chief justice of the United States.

It was a game of legal dodgeball, a great defensive battle with not a lot of points scored. There’s more to come. Very soon, President Bush will nominate someone to fill the other opening on the court, and that nominee will go through the same drill. There is a chance this president will get to name yet another justice during this term.

The Supreme Court will change radically, but in one important way, it may not. Unless Judge Roberts—assuming he is confirmed—changes policy, citizens still will not know how this new court deliberates on some of the most pivotal and impactful legal dilemmas of the day.

That’s because the Supreme Court stubbornly refuses to open itself to TV cameras. Yet the truly divisive issues in this nation—religion, reproductive rights, gun laws, the rights of accused criminals—all end up, in one way or another, affected by the high court. Maybe if more Americans had access to the great arguments on all sides of those issues, more of us would be tolerant of the viewpoints of others—left, right and center. (The court has budged a little, including allowing the immediate release of audiotapes in key cases.)

Fortunately, last week, Roberts didn’t shut the door on reversing the ban on television cameras in the courtroom. The question came up as the judge explained his views on the right of the government to deny the media access to parts of New Orleans to document the cleanup efforts, which some reporters have complained about.

He said there is “great difficulty whenever you try to distinguish between public rights and media rights. If it is a situation in which the public is being given access, you can’t discriminate against the media and say, as a general matter, that the media don’t have access.”

We read that as saying that public trials can, through the presence of cameras, become even more public. And we were pleased when he echoed the sentiments of former Justice Louis Brandeis that “sunshine is the best disinfectant.”

Radio-Television News Directors Association President Barbara Cochran tells B&C she plans to send Roberts a letter urging him to allow cameras in the courtroom and offering him whatever technical assistance the court would need to make those cameras as unobtrusive as possible.

There is also a bill that has been introduced in Congress: the Sunshine in the Court Act, which would allow cameras in federal courts. Co-sponsor Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), who asked Roberts about cameras, read his response as a good sign, saying they should hurry up and pass the bill.

We hope that, as a sign of a new era in the Supreme Court, Roberts—or whoever becomes Chief Justice—will allow the public in. The nation will be better for it.