Should Congress force the Supreme Court to allow TV cameras?
Dec. 9, 2011
By John Vettese, Student Voices staff writer
The U.S. Supreme Court conducts itself in a way that projects a certain image: intellectual, perceptive, dignified.
A far cry from Judge Judy in her TV courtroom, hollering at defendants from the bench.
Which is why the justices are worried about a proposed law that, if passed, would end the half-century ban on televised Supreme Court hearings. The Cameras in the Courtroom Act of 2011, being debated by the Senate now, would require television coverage of any hearings at the Supreme Court that are open to the public.
If the law passes, nobody is quite expecting the court to change overnight.
“I was trying to picture Ruth Bader Ginsburg turning into Judge Judy,” said Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar on ABC News. “It’s not going to happen.”
But there is concern about a slow eroding of decorum in the nation’s highest court, according to Justice Anthony Kennedy. Attorneys might start hamming it up for the cameras in an effort to get on television rather than conducting courteous, respectful arguments. Perhaps the justices might even take part. In 2008, Justice Kennedy told Congress: “If you introduce cameras, it is human nature for me to suspect from time to time that one of my colleagues is saying something for a sound bite. Please don’t introduce that insidious dynamic into what is now a collegial court.”
The bill is being debated as the court gears up to hear challenges to the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, the national health care law passed last year, which opponents have vigorously argued is unconstitutional. With so many across the country concerned about the outcome of the case, proponents – like former Pennsylvania Sen. Arlen Specter – say that the hearings should be accessible to anyone who wants to watch via live TV.
“The issues which are coming up in the Affordable Care Act really ought to be subject to really close public scrutiny,” Specter said. “I believe the legitimacy of the court itself is at stake for the people to understand what the court does.”
Specter was a vocal supporter of cameras in the Supreme Court during his time in the Senate, and beyond the health care law, he believes the public simply has a right to know what goes on in the court. “It’s not [the justices’] domain, it is the public’s domain, and [the court] ought to be accountable to the public,” the Christian Science Monitor recently quoted Specter as saying. He also said that, since the court chambers hold only 250 people, it was “selfish” of the court to keep Americans from watching the judicial process unfold.
The bigger question is whether Congress is allowed to tell the court what to do in this situation. The U.S. Constitution gives Congress some power regarding the Supreme Court – the Senate must approve the president’s nominees for justice, for example – but some court experts say it cannot tell the court how to run the show in its courtroom.
The Constitution created a system of checks and balances among the three branches of government to keep any one of the branches from overreaching its power. If the legislative branch (Congress) passes the Cameras in the Courtroom Act of 2011, and the executive branch (President Obama) signs it into law, then the judicial branch (the court) would have to comply.
But some experts – like Supreme Court advocate Thomas Goldstein – think that Congress shouldn’t force the issue. U.S. courts are slowly opening up to more public scrutiny, he told Congress. Lower courts are beginning to allow televised hearings, and the Supreme Court has begun providing same-day transcripts of entire hearings. Eventually, he said, the court will decide on its own to allow television cameras.
“I would not provoke the constitutional controversy of requiring them to do it,” he told Congress.
What do you think?
Should Congress pass the Cameras in the Courtroom Act of 2011? Do you think the law would change the way the justices and lawyers conduct themselves? If so, how? If not, why not? Do you agree with Sen. Specter that the public has a right to know what goes on in its court? Do you agree with Thomas Goldstein that Congress shouldn’t force the issue? Join the discussion!
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