Senators weigh televising high court


WASHINGTON -- With the Supreme Court nomination process for Judge Samuel A. Alito Jr. on hold until hearings in early January, the Senate Judiciary Committee changed course yesterday to address whether sessions of the court should be televised.

Sen. Arlen Specter, a Pennsylvania Republican who is the committee's chairman, told a hearing that opening the Supreme Court to television coverage would be "an enormously useful tool for public understanding" and would allow the American people to properly evaluate how their government functions.

Under the proposal he introduced last month, cameras would be removed only if a majority of the justices decided that their presence would undermine due process in a specific case.

The Supreme Court makes audio recordings of its proceedings but releases them immediately only on rare occasions - such as after the arguments in Bush v. Gore, the case that decided the 2000 presidential election.

The panel also considered a broader bill first introduced by Sen. Charles E. Grassley, an Iowa Republican, in 2001 and reintroduced this year.

Dubbed the "Sunshine in the Courtroom Act," Grassley's bill would allow the presiding judge of a specific case to decide whether video devices would be permitted during sessions in federal district and appellate courts.

While he supports greater openness in the courts, Grassley said, he believes that discretion should be left up to the judges.

"The bill is based on the experience of the states and federal courts," he said. "And the net result will be greater openness and accountability of the nation's federal courts."

According to the administrative office of the federal court system, appellate courts can set their own policies regarding television coverage, and the ones in New York and San Francisco have voted to permit cameras. No cameras are permitted in federal district courts.

State courts in all 50 states allow cameras, generally at the appellate level, said Henry S. Schieff of cable Court TV, which frequently televises trials.

The public affairs network C-SPAN broadcasts gavel-to-gavel coverage of House and Senate floor sessions, and the network's chairman and chief executive officer, Brian P. Lamb, told the Judiciary Committee that he had written to Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. offering similar coverage of the Supreme Court.

"The judiciary has become the invisible branch of our national government as far as television news coverage is concerned - and, increasingly, as far as the public is concerned," Lamb said.

While there was general support in the hearing for allowing cameras in the Supreme Court and federal appellate courts, there was more resistance when it came to trials in federal district court.

Sen. Jeff Sessions, an Alabama Republican, expressed the strongest reservations, arguing that cameras could significantly undermine the comfort and cooperation of key witnesses in criminal trials.

"Trials are crucibles for truth, not entertainment," he said.

Barbara Cochran, president of the Radio-Television News Directors Association, vehemently defended cameras in courts, saying that allowing the public to see what goes on instills greater trust in the judicial process.

"It is simply not right that Americans form their opinions about how our judicial system functions based on what they see and hear on the latest episode of Judge Judy or CSI," she said. "Nor does it make sense that the nominees for the Supreme Court are widely seen in televised hearings conducted by this committee, only to disappear from public view the moment they are sworn in as justices."

During his confirmation hearings in September, Roberts told the Judiciary Committee that cameras in the Supreme Court was an issue he didn't "have a settled view on." But other justices, including David H. Souter and Antonin Scalia, have declared strong opposition to the idea.

Emma Vaughn writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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