Cameras could appear in court

By Matthew Chayes Chicago Tribune (KRT)

WASHINGTON – As far as opinions go, Justice David Souter has made it clear what he thinks of TV cameras in Supreme Court hearings.

“I think the case is so strong,” Souter told a House subcommittee in 1996, “that I can tell you the day you see a camera come into our courtroom it’s going to roll over my dead body.”

But now a bill sponsored by Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) and approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee he leads would force the Supreme Court to let cameras into its hallowed halls, one of the few public spaces in Washington, along with other federal courts, where cameras are banned.

That prospect miffed two other justices, Anthony Kennedy and Clarence Thomas, who told a House subcommittee early this month that if Congress authorized the use of cameras at the court, it would mar the Supreme Court’s decorum, endanger the justices’ personal security and raise constitutional questions over the proper role of each branch of government.

Supporters of cameras in the Supreme Court, including Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), say that opening the court to cameras would teach the nation an important civics lesson.

“Unfortunately, a lot of people think this is all about Judge Judy, and that is not how justice is handed down in America,” Durbin said, referring to the television judge. “This is an institution, one of the most important in our government, a government that prides itself on being open and accessible. Eliminating the mystery of these proceedings will help people understand what justice really means.”

Laurence Tribe, a Harvard law professor who supports cameras at the high court, agreed, noting that only the “privileged few” get to witness the justices in court.

“Unfortunately, only the most naive idealist believes that the general public reads the court’s opinions,” said Tribe, whose first argument before the Supreme Court in 1980 established that the Constitution guarantees the public’s right to attend criminal trials.

The move to allow cameras comes after Chief Justice John Roberts Jr. said in his confirmation hearings that he would be willing to consider televising Supreme Court sessions.

Last year, when the courts refused to step in to order that Terri Schiavo be kept alive, lawmakers demanded more accountability from the courts. When Specter introduced his camera measure in September, he complained that the Supreme Court has become a “virtual super legislature.”

The same week, Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) and Rep. James Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.), chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, proposed separate measures to install a watchdog over the nation’s courts, that would “provide for the detection and prevention of inappropriate conduct in the federal judiciary.”

Judge Boyce Martin of the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals based in Cincinnati said, “Televising proceedings is one of the more important new innovations that’s gonna help the judiciary be appreciated more by the public as a whole.”