A Senate committee has passed a bill requiring the U.S. Supreme Court to televise the formal arguments made before the court.
Sen. Arlen Specter (D-Pa.) sponsored the bill, which passed Thursday, 13 to 6. It would require the court to televise all open sessions unless a majority of the court agrees that televising a specific case would violate due process considerations.
Specter, who was the top Republican on the Judiciary Committee until he switched parties last year, has long been a proponent of cameras in the court and made his case for opening up the proceedings from the Senate floor last week. "The Supreme Court, in a series of cases, has said the public has a right to know what is going on inside the courtroom, and that was the case which involved Richmond Newspapers," Specter said. "Well, in an electronic era, where the public gets so much of its information via television or via radio, there ought to be that access."
Some of the strongest opponents of televising cases have been the Supreme Court justices themselves. In 2007, Justice Anthony Kennedy nearly begged a House committee not to move forward on televising the court, which he said would be "insidious."
"I don't think it's in the best interest of our institution," Kennedy said. "The discussions that the justices have with the attorneys during oral arguments is a splendid dynamic. If you introduce cameras, it is human nature for me to suspect that one of my colleagues is saying something for a soundbite. Please don't introduce that insidious dynamic into what is now a collegial court."
The Judiciary Committee vote Thursday is the second high-profile victory of the year for C-SPAN, the cable industry-financed public affairs channel that airs continual coverage of the House and Senate sessions and has argued for years to have access to the proceedings.
The no-frills channel slammed Congress earlier this year for taking health care negotiations behind closed doors, despite the president's promise to air his meetings on C-SPAN. The result was the White House health care summit, a spectacle of top Democrats and Republicans pitching public options and tort reform as C-SPAN and all three cable new channels broadcast the event.
Bruce Collins, C-SPAN's vice president and general counsel, said the nonpartisan channel doesn't have a position on the bill, but pointed to a poll
the channel commissioned that showed two-thirds of Americans want TV cameras in the Supreme Court. That same poll showed that most Americans do not know the basic details of the court or how it works. Fewer than half could name a case that has been argued before the court.
Now that the Judiciary has approved the bill, it will go to the full Senate for consideration.