WASHINGTON – The U.S. Supreme Court would be forced to allow cameras in the courtroom under a bill introduced by two members of Congress who say the move would bring more transparency and accountability.
“It is time to give the American public the opportunity to see the most important court in the world in action,” said Rep. Ted Poe (R-Texas), who is cosponsoring the bill along with Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.).
“Roughly 50 seats in the Supreme Court’s gallery are available to the public, on a first-come, first-served basis,” said Poe, a former Texas criminal court judge, adding he was one of the first judges in Texas to allow cameras in the courtroom.
“A simple non-intrusive camera would allow for greater transparency and greater faith in the decisions made by the federal government. Lack of seating capacity is no reason to deny the public their right to view what goes on in the third branch of government.”
Connolly said “our nation’s highest court is not some ‘mystical priesthood’ that can operate outside of the public view. It is a coequal branch of government and must be accountable to the American public. In today’s digital age, it strains credulity that this modest effort at transparency would prove impossible or somehow inhibit the ability of our justices to hear cases in a fair manner.”
For high-profile cases such as the 2013 oral arguments in the challenge to California’s ban on same-sex marriage, some observers in the courtroom paid up to $6,000 to “line-standers,” to wait in line outside the Supreme Court for days to secure seats for them.
But measures to bring television coverage to the Supreme Court have failed for decades in Congress, and justices have been leery of allowing cameras, saying it could lead to grandstanding among justices and lawyers as well as misleading soundbites of comments and discussions taken out of context.
Gabe Roth, executive director of Fix the Court, a Washington-based organization that advocates cameras in the high court, praised the new measure.
“I am pleased that a bipartisan group of legislators has introduced a bill that would give all Americans – no matter where they live – the ability to watch justice unfold in real time,” Roth said.
“At a time when every aspect of our lives can be filmed and uploaded for the world to see, only through video-recording can the Supreme Court achieve a level of transparency that the public fully trusts.”
The bill calls on the Supreme Court to permit television coverage unless a majority of justices vote that “allowing such coverage in a particular case would constitute a violation of the due process rights of one or more of the parties before the Court.”
In June, the Government Accountability Office said televising Supreme Court proceedings would enable citizens to gain more understanding of the workings of the Supreme Court.
And the American Bar Association urged the court last February to allow cameras, as do all state supreme courts and some lower state courts.
In 2011, a Gallup/USA Today poll found broad bipartisan support for allowing cameras in the Supreme Court for oral arguments in its review of President Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act. The poll found 72 percent of adults supported allowing cameras, with slightly more Republicans than Democrats favoring the move.
But justices have resisted past attempts to bring cameras into the courtroom.
“There’s a concern about the impact of television on the functioning of the institution,” Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. said at a 2006 conference. “We’re going to be very careful before we do anything that might have an adverse impact.”
Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan backed off initial support, while Justices Anthony Kennedy and Stephen testified before Congress in 2013 that cameras would interfere with justices’ work and make them more self-conscious.
Justice Clarence Thomas had said in his 1991 confirmation hearing that he did not oppose cameras in the courtroom but later reversed his stand.
In 1946, the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure were amended to add a provision banning photographs or broadcasting of any Supreme Court proceedings. And the rules were updated in 1972 to ban television cameras, which have never been allowed in the courtroom.
But the Congressional Research Service says the ban could be lifted by a federal statute enacted by Congress.
Lawmakers who have proposed allowing cameras in the court include Judiciary Committee members Sens. John Cornyn (R-Texas), Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) and former Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.).
The late Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania had proposed a bill to allow cameras a decade ago.
But Kennedy said at the time: “It’s not for the court to tell Congress how to conduct its proceedings, and the reverse was also true. We feel very strongly that we have intimate knowledge of the dynamics and the mood of the court, and we think that proposals mandating and directing television in our court are inconsistent with the deference and etiquette that should apply between the branches.”
C-SPAN, which has broadcast congressional proceedings live for decades, has pledged to carry Supreme Court proceedings live if cameras are allowed.