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Influential senators on Wednesday predicted passage soon of legislation that would open the doors of the Supreme Court to regular broadcast coverage of its proceedings. “It’s a question of when, in my judgment, not if,” said Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter (R- Pa.), at a hearing on a bill that would mandate broadcast access unless a majority of justices voted against it in an individual case. “I think this is the year to make this law,” said Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), a member of the Judiciary Committee and a co-sponsor of the bill. “The time is ripe,” added Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), pointing to Bush administration moves toward government secrecy. After decades of futile efforts to persuade the Court to end its steadfast opposition to cameras on its own, the legislative approach — forcing the issue by statute — seems to be gaining momentum. One factor cited by several witnesses is the renewed public interest in the Supreme Court, beginning with Bush v. Gore in 2000 and continuing with this year’s confirmation hearings for Chief Justice John Roberts Jr.
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“Nominees for the Supreme Court are widely seen in televised hearings conducted by this committee, only to disappear from view the moment they are sworn in as justices,” testified Barbara Cochran, president of the Radio-Television News Directors Association, a longtime advocate of cameras in the courtroom. Specter also squared the proposal with his long-standing annoyance with the Supreme Court for overturning federal statutes in language that insults Congress. “Americans would be flabbergasted,” Specter said, to see on television how the Supreme Court disrespects Congress. He predicted the coverage would put some “legitimate pressure” on the Court. Roberts said during his confirmation hearings in September that he had an open mind about the issue of cameras in the Supreme Court, a statement that gave advocates new hope after the late Chief Justice Warren Burger’s “over my dead body” opposition and his successor William Rehnquist’s less vehement but still unyielding distaste for the idea. C-SPAN CEO Brian Lamb pledged that if the bill, S. 1768, passes, his channels would provide gavel-to-gavel coverage of all Supreme Court proceedings. Lamb said he was reminded of the need for more public education about the Court when a student recently asked him “where they put the jury in the Supreme Court.” Adding a dramatic touch to the hearing, political scientist Peter Irons played the audiotape of part of the late Thurgood Marshall’s 1958 argument in the civil rights case Cooper v. Aaron. The Court has recorded the audio of its arguments for the past 50 years, he said, “and I can’t see any reason not to add the pictures to the audio.” Irons’ appearance before Congress showed how far the debate has evolved in recent years. A dozen years ago, Rehnquist threatened Irons, a professor at the University of California-San Diego, with legal action for selling high court argument audiotapes in an educational package that has been used in hundreds of schools and colleges. On Wednesday, Irons’ efforts were praised. Also on the agenda Wednesday was another bill, S. 829, which would give federal appellate and trial judges the option of opening their courtrooms to cameras. The U.S. Courts of Appeals for the 2nd and 9th Circuits already allow broadcast coverage if the media request access and the panel hearing the case approves. Ninth Circuit Judge Diarmuid O’Scannlain reported that few if any problems have arisen since access was first allowed in 1991. Neither judges nor attorneys have shown any greater tendency to “grandstand” before the cameras, he said. But the section of the law that would allow cameras in trial courts ran into stiff opposition at the hearing. The Judicial Conference, the policy-making body for the federal courts, opposes it, and Jan DuBois, a trial judge in the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, warned of intimidation of jurors and witnesses. “The cameras do more than report the proceedings; they affect the proceedings,” he said. Barbara Bergman, representing the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, also came out strongly against broadcast access to federal criminal trials. Murder defendants would be reluctant, she asserted, to allow intimate details of their childhood to be aired at televised trials, even if it would be mitigating evidence.

Tony Mauro can be contacted at [email protected].

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