Dec. 14, 2007 · A bitterly divided Senate Judiciary Committee recently approved a measure that would allow camera access to the U.S. Supreme Court, despite the echoes of vocal opposition from the justices themselves.
The subcommittee voted 11–7 in favor of the bill, which would allow for gavel to gavel television coverage of all open sessions of the court except where a majority of justices voted that allowing such coverage in a particular case would “constitute a violation of the due process rights of one or more of the parties.”
Citing to concerns over separation of powers, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) sharply criticized the bill.
“The Supreme Court doesn’t tell us how to run our business, and we shouldn’t tell them how to run their business,” she said.
But Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), one of the sponsors of the bill countered his colleague’s concern, noting that Congress has ample authority over administrative matters in the Court, including its power to determine the number of justices and the start date of the court’s session.
Specter added that televising the court’s open proceedings would go a long way toward bringing the public an understanding of how the court functions, an essential step given that the court serves as the final arbiter of “virtually all of the cutting edge questions of our day.”
The justices on the court though have generally aligned themselves against allowing cameras in the august chamber, as Feinstein reminded the committee.
When testifying before Congress against a similar measure in 1996, Justice David Souter, picking up on former Chief Justice Warren Burger’s familiar refrain, told the Senate subcommittee that “the day you see a camera come into our courtroom it’s going to roll over my dead body.”
Justice Anthony Kennedy has been one of the most outspoken opponents to allowing cameras in the Supreme Court, fearing that the cameras would lead to “an insidious temptation for justices to get a sound bite on the evening news.”
And Justice Clarence Thomas recently picked up on Kennedy’s talking points.
“The dynamics of the room change considerably when cameras show up, and they don’t change for the better,” Thomas said at stop this week on his book tour. “I’m concerned it would result in some deterioration of what we do – I simply don’t see it as improving on the way we do our job.”
Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), one of the sponsors of the bill, recognized the justices’ point of view, but concluded that “with a governmental process you should err on the side of openness.”
A similar bill that would have extended television coverage for trial and appellate courts, however, was withdrawn after facing bipartisan criticism, particularly from the two federal prosecutors on the committee, Sens. Sheldon Whitehouse and Jeff Sessions, who feared that witnesses would be hesitant to come forward if their testimony would be televised.
This year’s version of the bill seeking to televise Supreme Court proceedings is not the first to gain traction in the Senate Judiciary Committee only to slip away before becoming a law.
Just last year, the Judiciary Committee approved an identical measure by a 12–6 vote, but the bill never came up for vote before the full Senate. A companion bill in the House never even made it out of committee.