It may be a quixotic campaign, but the Supreme Court is being requested to permit live televised coverage of oral arguments in the litigation over the health care reform law set for next March.
In separate letters to Chief Justice John Roberts Jr., C-SPAN chairman and CEO Brian Lamb and Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) asked that the Court allow cameras to record the proceedings for immediate broadcast, a first for the high court.
"It is a case which will affect every American's life, our economy, and will certainly be an issue in the upcoming presidential campaign, wrote Lamb, a longtime advocate for cameras in the high court.
Lamb also pointed out that in granting review in the cases on Monday, the Court laid out a schedule in the health care cases that would mean an extraordinary 5 1/2 hours of argument. "Interested citizens would be understandably challenged to adequately follow audio-only coverage of an event of this length with all the justices and various counsel participating," Lamb wrote. The Court currently releases the audio of oral arguments on the Friday of the week in which they occurred. Since the justices hear arguments only on Mondays, Tuesday and Wednesdays, the audio of the health care arguments would not be available for same-day coverage or broadcast.
Grassley, who has introduced legislation calling for broadcast access to federal courts, also told Roberts that "given the nature of the topic, everyone in the country would benefit from following the proceedings in this threshhold case." He added, "Providing live audio and video coverage of the oral arguments will be of great benefit to the Court and to the public. Letting the world watch these historic and important proceedings will bolster confidence in our judicial system and the decisions of the Court."
Most of the current justices, including Roberts, have indicated varying levels of opposition to camera access when they are asked about the issue at public appearances. In explaining their reasoning, justices assert the uniquely apolitical, unelected status of the federal courts, as well as a reluctance to tinker with what they see as a Court tradition that works well.
In comments at a judicial conference in June, Roberts said he was interested in seeing the results of a three-year experiment launched recently to study the impact of camera access to civil proceedings in selected lower federal courts around the country. That suggests a re-examination of the Court's policy is unlikely before 2014, but both C-SPAN and Grassley are asking for a one-time exception to the policy. New justices Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan are the only members of the current Court who have indicated their support for camera access.
There is a long history of unsuccessful media requests to the Supreme Court for television coverage of high-profile cases. In 1986, for example, a media coalition asked then-Chief Justice Warren Burger to allow camera coverage of Bowsher v. Synar, a challenge to the constitutionality of the Gramm-Rudman budget law. At the bottom of the letter he wrote back turning down the request, Burger added a handwritten postscript: "When you get Cabinet meetings on the air, call me!"