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Today, the longest-serving member of the U.S. Supreme Court marks his 30th anniversary on the court. During his time as an associate justice, John Paul Stevens has contributed to thousands of decisions that have affected, in one way or another, the lives of every American. Despite that great influence, only a small number of us have ever seen Stevens or any of his colleagues at work. That is because the court bars television coverage of its oral arguments. In a democracy that champions open government, that prohibition was never a good idea. With the development of inconspicuous television equipment and the evolution of the court’s own practices regarding audiotapes and transcripts, it is time for the court to abandon its arcane aversion to cameras. A bipartisan group of senators agrees, and it has introduced S. 1768, a bill that would amend the Judicial Code to require that the Supreme Court allow television coverage of oral arguments unless a majority of the justices voted otherwise in a particular case. There is room for debate about Congress’ ability to force the court to allow such coverage, but there is little reason to doubt the wisdom of S. 1768′s goal. Americans are skeptical about the justice system. Many believe that, at least on occasion, judges or juries decide cases for reasons having less to do with the fair application of the law to the facts than with some sort of personal or political bias. They read or hear secondhand descriptions of evidence or legal reasoning, and they reach conclusions about the process that too often bear little resemblance to what actually happened. Countering skepticism Allowing television coverage of the Supreme Court’s oral arguments would help to counter that skepticism in ways both actual and symbolic. The public could see and hear the arguments the lawyers make and the questions the justices ask. Americans could better understand the issues and why they are often more complex and difficult than brief and sometimes simplistic press summaries might suggest. Even if they did not take the time to watch, they would at least know that the process was open to them. The arguments against allowing cameras in courtrooms focus for the most part on trial courts. Opponents question the effect of coverage on witnesses, juries, lawyers and even judges. But those concerns have little to do with television coverage of appellate proceedings, which involve neither witnesses nor juries. While there are important reasons to open at least some trials to cameras as well, that is an issue distinct from television coverage of the Supreme Court. We propose that the court itself decide to allow television coverage of oral arguments. The court, like Congress, could have its own personnel control the cameras to ensure that they remain unobtrusive. In addition to allowing the press to have access to the video feed, the court could make the unedited tapes available to the public through streaming video on its Web site. Some members of the court, including Justice David Souter, have complained that with television coverage, they would lose their anonymity. The truth is that they already have. Because television is a visual medium, networks have for decades accompanied stories about the court with sketch artists’ renditions of the justices. Moreover, beginning five years ago with Bush v. Gore, the court has immediately released audiotapes of oral arguments in a handful of high-profile cases. When the broadcast or cable networks play those tapes, they customarily show a photo of the speaker. The late Chief Justice Warren Burger and others have voiced a concern that the press might cherry-pick sound bites from oral arguments in ways that would distort what actually happened. However, reporters make such choices every day and have done so since they first began to cover the court more than 200 years ago. Television coverage would thus not create any potential problem, but would merely transfer it to a new medium. Finally, opponents of television coverage in both trial and appellate courts raise the specter of grandstanding lawyers and judges. A majority of states now allow at least some television coverage of their appellate courts, and they do not report significant problems with inappropriate showmanship. Judge Diarmuid O’Scannlain sits on the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which has allowed television coverage of selected oral arguments since 1991. He told the Senate Judiciary Committee last month that both judges and lawyers in his court have retained the decorum one would expect in federal appellate proceedings, and that they have generally avoided playing to the camera. There is no reason to expect anything different from the justices of the Supreme Court or from the able and well-focused lawyers who appear before them. What we propose is not the huge step it might have been when Stevens took his seat in 1975. With its occasional release of audiotapes and its routine practice of posting oral-argument transcripts on its Web site, the court has moved toward greater openness. But, in a society that so routinely learns its news and information from television, that final step is an important one. Dick Thornburgh is a former governor of Pennsylvania and U.S. attorney general. He is counsel to Kirkpatrick & Lockhart Nicholson Graham in the firm’s Washington office. David R. Fine is a partner in the firm’s Harrisburg, Pa., office.

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