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New legislation calls for SCOTUS live audio, further transparency reforms

cameras set up on Supreme Court steps

A new bill introduced in the House of Representatives on Friday aims to increase transparency within the federal judiciary, and the Supreme Court in particular. The 21st Century Courts Act, House Resolution 6017, introduced by Rep. Hank Johnson, D-Ga., and co-sponsored by Rep. Mike Quigley, D-Ill., and Judiciary Committee Chair Jerry Nadler, D-N.Y., is a pared-down version of the 2018 ROOM Act. That bill called for a judicial code of conduct covering the Supreme Court but written by the Judicial Conference of the United States, as well as live-streaming of judicial proceedings, but failed to earn enough support to receive a full vote in the House.

The bill’s biggest change for the Supreme Court would be its requirement that the court make same-day audio of oral arguments available within a year, and live audio available within two. (It proposes a faster timeline for appeals courts, some of which already offer live audio.) Currently the court publishes a transcript of each argument on its website on the day of the argument, and an audio version by the following Friday. Occasionally, such as for the travel ban case in 2018, the court has granted requests for same-day audio.

Experiencing Supreme Court arguments can be challenging due to the lack of live audio or video and the limited public seating available in the courtroom. Gabe Roth, whose organization Fix the Court has spent the past year working with other organizations and legislators on the bill, acknowledged this reality in a statement: “Most Americans are unable to take off work and travel to a courthouse to experience appellate arguments in person and so [this legislation] provides for critical real-time broadcast access to these proceedings.”

Additional reforms present in the bill concern judicial conflicts of interest and public access to electronic court records.

The bill would require the Supreme Court to publish its own code of conduct. Currently, the justices are the only federal judges not governed by such a code. Another provision would compel all federal judges to publish a written explanation of their decisions to recuse from cases, except when doing so would violate their privacy. The timeline for online publication of federal judges’ financial disclosures would be pushed up to 90 days — a significant departure from the current process, in which the public must request to see disclosures and may wait months to receive them, if they do at all.

The bill also calls for a uniform online case-management system across the federal judiciary to streamline both filing of and access to court documents. In addition, access to PACER, the system by which members of the public can search for the documents online, would be made free for nearly all users within 2-3 years by temporarily upping charges levied on the heaviest commercial users and instituting other fees.

Roth highlighted how these additional reforms, namely “ensuring that the Supreme Court abides by a code of conduct, that every level of the judiciary better accounts for conflicts of interest and that all Americans have unfettered access to court documents,” serve as recognition that “an independent judiciary requires the public’s confidence in the impartiality of judges and justices.”

Recommended Citation: Kalvis Golde, New legislation calls for SCOTUS live audio, further transparency reforms, SCOTUSblog (Mar. 2, 2020, 5:38 PM),