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Supreme Court Remains Camera-Shy

The U.S. Supreme Court missed an opportunity to join the 21st century

By keeping cameras out of the courtroom when it heard oral arguments over President Barack Obama’s health-care reform law, the U.S. Supreme Court missed an opportunity to join the 21st century.

The court did not provide any reasons for denying the request for cameras to be present during the arguments in the six cases challenging the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (P.L. 111-148). The requests were made by members of Congress, including Sens. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) and Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.); the media, including C-SPAN; and stakeholder groups such as the Radio Television Digital News Association.

However, close observers of the Supreme Court have listed three likely reasons for the court’s denial: security concerns; the justices wanting to maintain some privacy; and the belief that once cameras are allowed into the court, it will open the broadcasting floodgates.

While there are legitimate security concerns surrounding the court’s justices, top officials of other branches of government also face security issues. Nonetheless, cameras routinely record, broadcast and web stream many of the public hearings and meetings conducted daily in Washington.

As far as privacy goes, the justices are public figures who make decisions that set legal precedents affecting millions of people. While the justices might want to spend part of their lives engaged in everyday activities, the millions of people affected by the court’s opinions should be able to view the arguments used to sway those decisions.

Since the Supreme Court is determined to remain camera shy, Congress has two bills before it that might force the court to add a camera pool. If bills introduced by Sen. Richard Durbin (D-Ill.) and Rep. Gerald Connolly (D-Va.) are passed, the court will only be able to prevent broadcasts of its proceedings in specific circumstances. Both bills are listed as the Cameras in the Courtroom Act (S. 1945 and H.R. 3572), and they say: “The Supreme Court shall permit television coverage of all open sessions of the court unless the court decides, by a vote of the majority of justices, that allowing such coverage in a particular case would constitute a violation of the due process rights of one or more of the parties before the court.”

Durbin’s bill was approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee and moved to the Senate floor, where it awaits a vote. Connolly’s bill was referred to the House Judiciary Committee, where it remains.

While the technology has changed since the founding fathers ratified the Constitution—including Article III, Section 1, establishing the Supreme Court—the right of the people to know has remained. The justices need to accept that. It is so ordered.