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TV Looms for High Court

Washington — A split Senate Judiciary Committee last Thursday voted 12-6 in favor of a bill that would force the U.S. Supreme Court to televise its oral arguments.

The nine-member court, which allows reporters to attend court sessions and take notes, has never permitted TV or radio coverage inside its hearing room.

The bill (S. 1768), sponsored by Judiciary chairman Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), would require camera coverage in all instances except where the court determines the due process rights of a party would be violated.

“Because the Supreme Court of the United States holds the power to decide cutting-edge questions on public policy, thereby effectively becoming a virtual 'super legislature,' the public has a right to know what the Supreme Court is doing,” Specter said in a statement after the vote.


If it became law, the Specter bill could trigger a constitutional battle, spawning litigation that could result in the high court ruling that mandated camera coverage was an unconstitutional invasion of the judiciary as a co-equal branch of government. Specter himself has said the court retained authority to rule his bill out of bounds.

Sentiment against TV coverage runs strong within the court. No sitting Supreme Court Justice has endorsed televised coverage; many justices have argued that the court's role in society would be distorted and its carefully protected reputation would be tarnished if video footage from court proceeding became part of the larger entertainment culture.

A Specter spokesman didn't know Specter's plan for gain full Senate passage. One possibility is for Specter to attach his bill to the annual spending bill that funds the federal judiciary.

If passed by the Senate, terms of a mandate for live camera coverage of Supreme Court proceedings would still need to gain approval of the House of Representatives; and the final, jointly approved legislation would have to be signed into law by President Bush.

At his confirmation hearing in January, Justice Samuel Alito said that as a member of the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, he voted to admit cameras, but a majority of his colleagues refused. Chief Justice John Roberts, during his Senate hearing, was noncommittal.

Opposition to the Specter bill involved a rare alliance among liberal Democrats Edward Kennedy (Mass.) and Diane Feinstein (Calif.) and conservative Republicans Orrin Hatch (Utah), Jon Kyl (Ariz.), Jeff Sessions (Ala.), and Tom Coburn (Okla.).

The Judiciary Committee, in a 10-6 vote, also approved a second bill (S. 829) sponsored by Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) and Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) that would authorize Chief Justice Roberts and other presiding judges in lower federal courts to permit TV coverage.

Court TV considers the Grassley-Schumer bill more valuable because it would improve access to criminal trials in federal courts. A similar bill has passed the House Judiciary Committee.

“The [Senate] committee has reflected the will of the people who want to be able to see and hear the third branch of their government for themselves. We hope the full Senate will now pass this bill which will not only provide important educational benefits but will also increase confidence in the American system of justice,” Court TV CEO Henry Schleiff said in a statement.


C-SPAN, the public-affairs network created by cable, has pressed the Supreme Court to admit cameras, promising to televise in full every oral argument. The court hears about 80 cases in a term.

C-SPAN has not endorsed legislation because the network does not want to be perceived as taking sides between Congress and the Supreme Court.

“These bills indicate at least Congress is interested in opening up the federal judiciary by televising court proceedings, and C-SPAN agrees with that goal. But it is also clear to us that the federal courts, particularly the Supreme Court, are much less interested in allowing camera coverage,” said C-SPAN corporate vice president Bruce Collins.