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Congress again considers cameras in the courtroom – including at the Supreme Court

At a hearing yesterday of the House Judiciary Committee’s Subcommittee on Courts, IP and the Internet, there was strong bipartisan backing for the introduction of cameras at the Supreme Court and other federal courts. But even if the bill being discussed – H.R. 917, the Sunshine in the Courtroom Act of 2013 – makes it out of committee and becomes a law, don’t count on watching Supreme Court proceedings from the comfort of your own home anytime soon: although the bill authorizes the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court to allow the Court’s proceedings to be televised, it does not mandate cameras at the Court.

H.R. 917 is the latest in a series of efforts by Congress to introduce cameras into all federal courts – not just the Supreme Court. In appellate courts, including the Supreme Court, the bill would give the presiding judge the discretion to permit the “photographing, electronic recording, broadcasting, or televising to the public of any court proceeding over which that judge presides” unless doing so would violate a party’s due process rights. Similar standards apply to district courts, along with additional protections for witnesses and juries.

Three of the four witnesses who appeared at yesterday’s hearing expressed support for the bill. Representative Steve King (R-Iowa), one of the bill’s drafters, testified that the bill would expand public access to the courts; although millions of people can watch the Super Bowl, he noted, the Supreme Court decides momentous cases like Bush v. Gore with “only a handful of people” having access to the oral arguments. And apparently speaking from personal experience, he recounted that, for historic cases like the 2012 challenge to the Affordable Care Act’s individual mandate, it requires a “significant maneuver” even for a member of Congress to secure a seat at the oral argument.

King was followed by Representative Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.), who testified that allowing cameras in the federal courts would give the public greater insight into the judicial process and build public confidence in that process. She described pilot programs to televise proceedings in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit and the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California as enjoying “wide acceptance” from participating judges and shared that numerous judges had told her that what they really want to see is cameras in the Supreme Court.

Mickey Osterreicher, the general counsel to the National Press Photographers Association, also spoke out strongly in favor of cameras in the courtroom. He noted that interest in the Supreme Court is high when, as now, the Court has a wide variety of landmark cases on its docket, but public seats at the Court are very limited. By contrast, he emphasized, the many state supreme courts that have allowed their proceedings to be televised have not experienced problems.

Testifying on behalf of the Judicial Conference of the United States, which makes policy for the federal courts (but does not speak for the Supreme Court), U.S. District Judge Julie Robinson was the lone dissenting witness. Judge Robinson told the subcommittee that the Judicial Conference opposes the bill because (among other things) it could impair a defendant’s right to a fair trial and threaten the safety of participants, judges, and law enforcement officers.

There was also solid (although not uniform) bipartisan support for the bill from members of the subcommittee. Representative Steve Chabot (R-Ohio) reminded the audience that, along with now-Senator Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), he had introduced legislation regarding cameras in the courtroom nearly twenty years ago, and he lamented that – despite his involvement in drafting the federal ban on partial-birth abortion, he was not able to watch the Court’s announcement of its opinion upholding that ban. And Representative Ted Deutch (D-Fla.) suggested that many of the concerns at the heart of opposition to the bill simply wouldn’t apply to the Supreme Court; given that the Court takes on “some of the most important issues facing our country” – such as the Affordable Care Act, immigration, and the Second Amendment – he asked, somewhat rhetorically, what problems would actually arise from televising its proceedings?

Although Representative Deutch may not see any problems from allowing cameras at the Supreme Court, the Justices themselves are adamant in their opposition to televising their proceedings. Now-retired Justice David Souter once famously quipped that cameras would roll into the courtroom over his dead body, and even some of the Court’s newer Justices – who were once enthusiastic about the prospect of cameras in the courtroom – have since soured on the idea. So even if Congress does pass H.R. 917 and it is signed by the president, it is extremely unlikely that cameras in the Supreme Court will follow anytime soon.

Recommended Citation: Amy Howe, Congress again considers cameras in the courtroom – including at the Supreme Court, SCOTUSblog (Dec. 4, 2014, 10:16 AM),