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Senate panel approves bill to televise Supreme Court's proceedings

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Feb. 9, 2012 - WASHINGTON - Open proceedings of the U.S. Supreme Court would be televised under a bill approved Thursday by the Senate Judiciary Committee. But it appeared unlikely that Congress would move on the bill before the court hears arguments next month on the "individual mandate" of the new health-care law.

"In a democratic society that values transparency and participation, there can be no valid justification for such a powerful element of government to operate largely outside the view of the American people," said U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., who sponsored the bill along with Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa.

Grassley and Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas., were the only committee Republicans to support the bill, which was approved, 11 to 7. The main Democratic opponent was Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., who said she worried that, in some cases, televised proceedings can lead to "showboating" by lawyers. "Because something is televised, justice is not necessarily better," said Feinstein, mentioning the O.J. Simpson murder trial.

But the committee's chairman, Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., argued that many Supreme Court cases inspire wide public interest, and only a few dozen people are now allowed to witness the court's open proceedings -- such as next month's oral arguments on aspects of the Affordable Care Act, which he said should be made available to the public.

"There's tremendous public interest in witnessing these historic arguments -- both on the part of those who support the [Affordable Care Act] and those who oppose it," Leahy said. He conceded that the court now releases audio recordings of oral arguments but said it does not allow "live streaming" of that audio.

In the past, many Supreme Court justices have resisted opening court proceedings to cameras, arguing that it is not appropriate in some cases. But Durbin and others pointed out that the "Cameras in the Courtroom Act" applies only to open sessions of the Supreme Court. (Click hereto see the Judiciary panel's discussion of the issue.)

Also, a provision of the bill would allow a majority of justices to close arguments if they find that televising the proceedings would constitute a violation of the due process rights of one or more of the parties before the court. The Judiciary Committee approved a similar bill in the last Congress, but it did not become law.

"For too long the American public has been prevented from observing open sessions of the Supreme Court," Durbin said. "As the final arbiter of constitutionality, the Supreme Court decides the most pressing and often most controversial issues of our time."

In his statement on the bill, Grassley argued that wider public scrutiny of Supreme Court proceedings would lead to more accountability and transparency, as well as deepening public understanding of the high court.

"Our Constitution requires that the government be accountable to the people. The best way we can ensure that the federal government is accountable is to create transparency, openness and access," Grassley said.

Rob Koenig is an award-winning journalist and author. He worked at the STL Beacon until 2013.