The Senate Judiciary Committee has voted 11-7 to approve a
bill, S. 1945, that would open up Supreme Court oral argument to televising in
real time unless a majority of judges ruled it would violate due process.
The vote was held before much of the discussion in an effort
to pass it while the committee still had a quorum.
Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), who voted for the
bill, said it was important to have as much openness as possible, to as many
people as possible.
Backers of the bill are looking to get that televised
coverage before the upcoming oral argument on the President's health care bill.
Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), who sponsored the bill, pointed
out that the Supreme Court's "so-called" public hearings are only
open to about 250 of the nation's 300 million people in real time, less those
eats reserved for those in the Supreme Court bar. He also said that since the
Senate nominations for those Supreme Court Justices are open to cameras, the same
should be the case when they cross the street to the court.
He said a "glaring omission" was the lack of real
time audio and video that are the "predominate media tools in the digital
age." Durbin said the argument that court proceedings should not be televised
because they might be taken out of context reminded him of an editorial about
the issue that likened that stance to removing paintings from an art gallery
for fear the public did not have the art history background to appreciate them.
Sen. Richard Blumenthal, who said he had argued cases before
the court, extended the analogy, saying it was more like closing the gallery
for fear of danger to the art itself, whose whole purpose was to be accessible
to the public. "Fear that public access will harm the process runs counter
to the purpose of the process itself."
Weighing in against the bill was Sen. Diane Feinstein
(D-Calif.), who pointed out that at least five of the current Justices do not
support televising proceedings, that there were separation of powers issues
about telling the Supreme Court what to do, and that attorneys and even judges
would be tempted to perform for the cameras, as the Simpson trial demonstrated.
Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) countered that there were no
witnesses or defendants to be affected by cameras and that the move from the
current regular release of audio of the arguments within a few days to real
time video and audio did not seem a major step.
Durbin added that if a majority of Justices concluded
cameras should be excluded from any argument, the bill allowed them to do so.
While the legislation passed out of committee with the
bipartisan support of the ranking member, Charles Grassley (R-Iowa), a veteran
court camera bill watcher pointed out that a similar bill passed out of that
committee three times before eventually failing to pass.
That watcher, Bruce Collins, C-SPAN VP and general counsel, said the good news was Grassley's support, the bad news was that it would be tough getting the 60 votes just about anything needs to pass the Senate these days, much less something involving separation of powers.
C-SPAN has been pushing for live video and audio of the court, and absent that at least same-day access.