By an 11-7 vote, the Senate Judiciary Committee today approved a bill that calls for television access to Supreme Court proceedings. The bill, S.1945, faces an uncertain future in the full Senate and the House of Representatives, amid separation-of-powers concerns about Congress telling the Court how to conduct its business.
Senators who favored the bill cited the upcoming Supreme Court oral arguments on the health care legislation as but one example of the need for broadcast access. Committee chairman Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), spoke of the "tremendous public interest in the historic arguments" over the Affordable Care Act. Media organizations have asked the Court for broadcast access, or at least expedited release of the audio of the arguments set for the week of March 26, without luck so far.
Sen. Dick Durbin, (D-Ill.), sponsor of the bill, said that there is no justification for the Court to be "outside the view of the American people." Durbin said several justices have said they oppose camera access in part because they think the public won't understand the proceedings. Durbin likened that argument to taking art out of art museums because visitors might not have the sophistication to understand what they are seeing.
Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), a former Supreme Court law clerk who voted for the bill, nonetheless balked at Durbin's analogy. "The fear is danger to the art itself," Blumenthal said, suggesting he sympathized with justices' concerns that the arguments and the dynamics of the Court might be affected by the presence of cameras. Several senators noted that the bill allows justices to close individual arguments to cameras if a majority believe that a party's due process rights would be violated.
The only Democrat to vote against the bill was Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), who voiced concerns about forcing cameras on a Court that clearly does not want them. "I don't believe we should tell the Supreme Court what to do," she said.
In addition to Leahy, Durbin and Blumenthal, senators voting in favor of the bill were: Herb Kohl (D-Wis.), Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), Al Franken (D-Minn.), Christopher Coons (D-Del.), Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) and John Cornyn (R-Texas). In addition to Feinstein, those voting against were: Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.), Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), Michael Lee (R-Utah), and Tom Coburn (R-Okla.).
In his remarks, Grassley detoured from the cameras issue before the committee to applaud yesterday's decision by D.C. U.S. District Court Judge Emmet Sullivan ordering the public release of a 500-page report critical of the prosecution of former Alaska senator Ted Stevens. Sullivan appointed a special investigator to look into the flawed prosecution, over the objection of the Justice Department.
"The public has a right to know what the special investigator found and how pervasive the misconduct was inside the Public Integrity Unit at the Justice Department," said Grassley. "The American people need to hear the truth about what happened, not simply trust the Justice Department’s internal Office of Professional Responsibility review process."