Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) on Tuesday urged Chief Justice John Roberts Jr. to allow live broadcast of the Supreme Court's opinion announcements in the blockbuster cases due to be issued before the end of June.
“It is not unreasonable for the American people to have an opportunity to hear firsthand the arguments and opinions that will shape their society for years to come," Durbin wrote to Roberts in a letter released Tuesday.
Coming so late in the term, the letter amounts to a Hail Mary pass, especially since the court has stubbornly resisted live broadcast of any of its proceedings since the earliest days of radio. But Durbin's letter is different from other efforts in that it seeks broadcast of the court's opinion announcements, not just its oral arguments.
The court has announced its rulings from the bench since its first opinions in 1792. For many years, the justices recited the rulings in their entirety, droning on for hours. Chief Justice Warren Burger pared down that practice to oral summaries in the early 1970s. Advocates and journalists often sit in court to hear the justices explain the high points and nuances of their rulings, as well as an occasional oral dissent.
But unlike oral arguments, audio of the opinion announcements is not released by the court during the same week in which they occur, even though they are recorded. The audio of opinion announcements only becomes available months after a court term ends, when the court transfers the tapes to the National Archives and the Oyez Project plucks out and transcribes the announcements. The court has traditionally downplayed opinion announcements, not wanting lawyers or the public to view them as an official part of decisions, to be quoted or cited.
"In the next two weeks, the Court will announce opinions in some of the most closely watched cases in a generation. The Court’s opinions in these cases will impact millions of individuals and the collective fabric of American life," Durbin wrote in his letter to the chief justice. "People of reasonable minds may disagree on the proper outcome of any given case, but we can all agree that the American public is well served when all three branches of government are accessible and transparent. The opportunity to receive real-time access to audio from all public proceedings of the Supreme Court would greatly expand the Court’s accessibility to average Americans. The enhanced transparency that would come from live audio broadcasts of public proceedings would allow the public to more closely track the many important cases that the Court decides."
Durbin's letter also took a swipe at the "exclusive" Supreme Court bar in a paragraph criticizing the way in which public seating was handled in March when the justices heard historic arguments in the same-sex marriage cases.
"Some people started lining up five days early," Durbin wrote. "Others reportedly paid up to $6,000 for line-sitters. Everyone else -- including those unable to travel to Washington, D.C. -- was relegated to the snippets of news leaking from the courtroom during the Court’s proceedings and forced to wait until the afternoon to listen to the arguments in their entirety.
At the same time, members of the exclusive Supreme Court Bar were able to show up to the Court shortly before each argument, secure seating in a comfortable lounge, and enjoy a live audio feed of the Court’s proceedings."
In recent years, Durbin has taken up the cause of urging broadcast coverage of the high court's public proceedings, following in the footsteps of the late Pennsylvania senator Arlen Specter. Durbin's bill requiring broadcast access to the court's public sessions was endorsed by the Senate Judiciary Committee in the last Congress, but went no further.