Should the Supreme Court get ready for a close-up?
On Tuesday, a Senate Judiciary subcommittee heard testimony on Senate Bill 410, the Sunshine in the Courtroom Act of 2011, which would allow cameras in the Supreme Court, an idea that many past and present justices vehemently oppose (to put it mildly).
The legislation would mandate television coverage of open Supreme Court and Circuit Courts of Appeals sessions unless a majority of justices indicated that coverage would violate due process. The bill also includes provisions for broadcasting district court hearings.
The hearing followed requests from C-SPAN and other news outlets that want to broadcast the 330 minutes of Supreme Court healthcare arguments that will surely create a media -- if not ratings -- bonanza.
Sen. Amy Klobuchar, who chaired the hearing, criticized the limited public access to the hearings. While the Court provides transcripts and audio recordings of the arguments on its website, Sen. Klobuchar said that "it shouldn't be a once in a lifetime experience to see the court in action" on account of the courtroom's limited seating availability, reports ABC News.
Proponents of cameras in the court claim that there needs to be greater transparency in the courts. Opponents worry that the cameras would prompt judges to limit their questions and lawyers to grandstand, reports Reuters.
There's also a constitutional prong: the legislation could violate the separation of powers by interfering with the Court's autonomy.
SCOTUSblog's Tim Goldstein conceded that a Congressional mandate for cameras in the court would probably survive constitutional review, but maintained that the decision to bring in cameras should be left to the Court, reports Christian Science Monitor.
How many additional people would follow Supreme Court hearings if they were televised under the Sunshine in the Courtroom Act? Anyone who has an interest in the Court's proceedings can listen to oral arguments on the Court's website or read the transcripts, but we doubt those files get much traffic.
If Congress demands cameras in the Court, most viewers will just skip oral arguments like they skipped the televised Affordable Care Act legislative hearings, and opt for snippets and sound bites on evening news and Jon Stewart. We suspect that the lawyers who currently read the transcripts and listen to the audio files would be the main beneficiaries of Supreme Court broadcasts.