Thanks to sources within the court system Indiana Barrister was alerted to Senate bill 1786, authored by Sen. Arlen Specter, Chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, which would allow televising United States Supreme Court proceedings. The full text of the bill has not yet been posted online but Sen. Specter's office has sent a copy to Indiana Barrister.Since the 1950s, the Supreme Court has taped its oral arguments. Oyez.com provides audio of some of them. Peter Irons, a liberal professor/researcher and author of various books on legal subjects, got in trouble -- though the Supreme Court backed down from threats of further action given the negative reaction -- when he put a collection of some edited orals (with commentary) for sale in his "May It Please The Court" series. And, recently, the Supreme Court in a few cases (Bush v. Gore, affirmative action, campaign finance, and enemy detainees) released the audio immediately to C-SPAN. In those cases, pictures of the people talking/asking questions were supplied. The Supreme Court on its own website has the transcripts of the oral arguments, recently labeling the justices asking the questions (in the past, the questioners were not so labeled).
The audio and transcripts provide a good resource to the public. Oral arguments along with opinions are the only "public" aspect of the Supreme Court, the general public (though tourists are generally allotted only three minutes or so) allowed to view the orals along with the press, lawyers, and participants. Sometimes, often in fact, orals can be pretty boring. Nonetheless, sometimes -- as Dahlia Lithwick suggests -- they can be quite revealing and important. They also, and this scares some of them, demystifies the Court to some degree -- but this is also a good thing. We have "public" trials in this country in part to serve as a check to total judicial mystery. It is long time that the orals are televised, surely at least for the audio to be supplied.
The concern in part is that people will play to the camera. Since the press is present as well as other important characters, the supposed harm is only likely to be just so much -- these days, appellate arguments often are dominated by a small class of litigators, and their audience is largely there already. Some, especially those who represent certain advocacy groups, might be tempted. But, this is the Supreme Court, not special order sessions on the floor of Congress. How much additional mugging -- as if Scalia et. al. do not do that already -- will be possible? A trial court with a jury might raise special problems, but oral arguments in front of the Supreme Court is a lot less likely to be problematic. One balances this with the public value of such openness, which C-SPAN in general suggests is quite important.
Some justices fear the news media will take selective clips and spin them in a misleading way. But, the media can do this now -- the press is allowed in, and they can highlight certain parts of the oral arguments. Why should television media be discriminated in this fashion? Are they considered more likely to do so? If so, is this not First Amendment discrimination anyway? And, some justices like their privacy. But, as Sen. Specter notes, justices might actually have too much privacy to the degree that they are so powerful and so little regarded by the public at large. A public that generally does not even know half their names.
Televising/broadcasting the oral arguments will not lead to grand changes or improvements. But, it will likely be a beneficial step, one that is long past overdue. Hopefully, CJ Roberts will be sympathetic and help convince his brethren to be supportive. And, quite arguably, Congress does not need their permission to pass the below legislation.