Lighting Up the Supreme Court

In the flurry of activity in this lame duck session of Congress, you might have missed Tuesday's farewell address of veteran Senator Arlen Specter.  He lost the election this time around, so his colleagues gave him the floor to opine about his vision for America.

 Most of it was predictably partisan, but one passionate suggestion seems to cross party lines and is very important to those of us in journalism who believes sunlight is the best disinfectant for corruption.  Senator Specter says it's about time Congress forced the U.S. Supreme Court to allow TV cameras in the room to allow Americans to see the proceedings. 

 The Court is as close to a secret society as current U.S. law allows.  There are only 300 seats in the courtroom and the public is seldom afforded a seat to hear arguments on the most important legal issues of our time.  Media lawyers and organizations have been arguing for access for years, but the court routinely says no.

 Specter told his senate colleagues today that it's time the Court acted out in the open as an additional check on its power.  He said, “Congress could at least require televising of court proceedings to provide some transparency to inform the public about how the Court is the final word on the cutting issues of our day in our society.”  Some polls show that 85 percent of the American people favor televising the Court.  Great Britain, Canada and some states already permit TV cameras in the room of their highest court.  The Court already allows audio recording and transmission of sound from the chambers.

 Specter is right.  Congress has the power to order the court to open its doors to television and radio journalists.  It can dictate administrative rules to the Court.  Specter ended his speech saying, “While television cannot provide a definitive answer, it could be significant and may be the most that can be done.” and not interfere with judicial independence.

 There is no good reason not to open up the court to TV cameras.  New technology now allows journalists to use tiny, low light cameras that will not intrude or distract.   Of course, justices may feel threatened.  Public opinion is a formidable foe.  When the TV cameras show what is going on, the public may push back.  Justices will have to resist that public pressure and rule on the merit of the law and the Constitution.  We choose them to do that.  Hiding behind the closed doors of the Supreme Court chamber sends the wrong message.  We want them resolute in their convictions, not hiding behind the cloak of secrecy.  I wonder if anyone was listening to Arlen Specter.

Categories: Becker’s Digital Notebook