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The Supreme Court should be televised

Nothing has focused as much attention on the Supreme Court since the 2000 Florida election recount case as last week's arguments over the constitutionality of President Obama's health care act. The outcome, expected this summer, will hang ominously over this year's presidential campaign until then, and beyond.

Already the radio and television airwaves, the Internet, newspaper accounts and commentary are filled with descriptions of the exchanges between the lawyers arguing pro and con before the justices who will decide the fate of the controversial law. Most of these observations are second-hand, based on transcripts and on audio recordings only fairly recently permitted, because television cameras are barred.

While virtually all other aspects of the American political system at work can today be observed directly by the citizenry, either live or on taped rebroadcast on television, the Supreme Court in session remains essentially in the dark. Hand-drawn sketches of the justices and lawyers must suffice because photographs also are prohibited.

Television that brings daily sessions of Congress to the public via C-SPANand many congressional hearings via cable have made millions of Americans students of the democratic process. And a window to the executive branch is provided by televised daily White House press briefings and periodic presidential news conferences.

However, the business of the Supreme Court conducted in public is directly available only to the relatively few people admitted into the small, hallowed chamber on Capitol Hill. Most of the seats available go to lawyers in the case, law clerks, ranking governmental officials, including select members of Congress, and working members of the news media.

For the three days of hearings on the health care issue, of the more than 500 seats in the chamber, only about 180 were set aside of the public, with hundreds waiting outside the building for hours to get them. Another 34 seats were reserved for visitors on a rotating basis for a glimpse of three to five minutes to snatch a morsel of history in person.

Among the rationales for keeping television cameras out of the chamber is that they would disrupt the serious demeanor of court's deliberations and would likely lead to grandstanding by the arguing lawyers, if not by the justices themselves.

That was one of the same arguments that for years kept television cameras out of the House and Senate. Although it has hardly been unknown for some politicians to play to the cameras, television has not notably interfered with the business at hand. Self-serving blowhards are easy to spot and dismiss.

In the Supreme Court, self-discipline by jurors and lawyers is a hallmark, and the public's interest in hearing first-hand the views of the justices that will shape the administration of justice and fairness should trump any outmoded sense of decorum.

In a recent Politico interviewBrian Lamb, the founder and chief executive officer of C-SPAN, the amalgamation of cable television and radio outlets that airs Congressional sessions and hearings across the country, argued persuasively that the time has come to allow television cameras into otherwise open Supreme Court deliberations.

Mr. Lamb dismissed the fear of grandstanding and concern that the cameras' presence "will change the nature of what goes on in the court." The justices, he noted, have the security of lifetime tenure, and lawyers appearing before them are "certainly aware that if you do anything that is grandstanding or unusual, they will be ostracized by the Chief Justice or the decision they come to."

"As it stands now," Mr. Lamb said, "we have graphic artists sitting there, characterizing what's going on in the court. ... You have print journalists sitting there writing down everything they say, you have transcripts that are online soon after the session, you have an audio service. ... It's almost like watching them on television, so why not the real thing?"

More than half a century ago, when television cameras were first allowed at presidential news conferences, direct attribution ofPresident Dwight D. Eisenhower's remarks were barred until an edited transcription was released. But that prohibition was soon abandoned, with no harm to Ike or to the Republic. The public deserves nothing less regarding the court.

Jules Witcover is a syndicated columnist and former long-time writer for The Baltimore Sun. His latest book is Joe Biden: A Life of Trial and Redemption" (William Morrow). His email is juleswitcover@comcast.net.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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