Senator Pushes for Cameras in High Court

By Thaney, Kaitlin | News Media and the Law, Fall 2005 | Go to article overview
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Senator Pushes for Cameras in High Court

Thaney, Kaitlin, News Media and the Law

Iowa hearing deciding on camera ban closed to media; Illinois high court maintains camera ban; Georgia Supreme Court overturns ban in murder trial

Television cameras could venture into now forbidden territory - the nation's highest court - if a bill introduced by the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee passes. The legislation, introduced in September, calls for U.S. Supreme Court sessions to be televised, though at least two justices oppose the idea.

An Iowa judge decided in a September hearing closed to journalists that a felony HIV-transmission trial will be shuttered to cameras. The Illinois Supreme Court, without comment, denied a request to change its rules on allowing cameras in the high court, maintaining a 25-year ban. An Idaho judge barred cameras and other recording devices from the hearing of an accused murderer in late August. And in Georgia, the state's highest court reversed a camera ban, though the ruling comes too late to help the media.

Legislation calls for televising U.S. Supreme Court proceedings

U.S. Supreme Court proceedings could be televised under a bill introduced in late September by Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee. During nomination hearings for Chief Justice John Roberts, the nominee said he had not decided whether cameras should be allowed in the courtroom, prompting Specter to introduce the bill.

"Because the Supreme Court of the United States holds 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 comments published in the Congressional Record Sept. 26. "And that right would be substantially enhanced by televising the oral arguments of the Court so that the public can see and hear the issues presented to the Court."

Specter stressed the importance of allowing the public to understand the impact the Supreme Court has, citing historic cases such as the Dred Scott decision, the Pentagon Papers case and more recent rulings regarding eminent domain and the detention of alleged enemy combatants.

"Given the enormous significance of each vote cast by each Justice on the Supreme Court, televising the proceedings of the Supreme Court will allow sunlight to shine brightly on these proceedings and ensure greater public awareness and scrutiny," Specter said in his statement.

Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), a cosponsor, agreed that openness of governmental workings is crucial during "the current administration's dramatic shift toward excessive secrecy.

"This legislation springs from one of our most essential principles," Grassley said in addressing die Senate. "A democracy works best when the people have all the information the security of the Nation permits."

Specter's bill has at least two opponents on the high court. Justice Antonin Scalia opposes the bill, he said in a rare interview on NEC's "Today" show Oct. 10. "We don't want to become entertainment," he said. "I think there's something sick about making entertainment out of real people's legal problems. I don't like it in the lower courts, and I don't particularly like it in the Supreme Court."

Joining Scalia is Justice David Souter, who in 1996 said: "I can tell you the day you see a camera come into our courtroom, it's going to roll over my dead body."

Specter's bill would deny access to broadcast media with cameras only if the majority of justices in a particular case decided cameras would violate due process.

Other co-sponsors of the bill are Sens. George Alien (R-Va.), John Cornyn (R-Texas), Russell Feingold (D-Wis.) Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) and Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.)' "

Schumer and Grassley proposed similar legislation in the past that would have permitted federal trials to be televised. Cameras currently can be barred from all federal courtrooms.

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