- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 27, 2012

The Supreme Court on Wednesday will wrap up its third day of oral arguments on the constitutionality of Obamacare. Only a relative handful will have the privilege of witnessing this historic debate, as the high court refuses to allow its proceedings to be broadcast on television.

In 1979, C-SPAN opened the inner workings of the House of Representatives and later the Senate to the viewing public. It could do the same for the judicial branch. Nearly three-quarters of the public supports the concept, according to a Gallup poll.

But the idea gets mixed reviews on Capitol Hill. Televising court proceedings is a rare issue in Congress that seems to split more along lines of personal experience than party. Lawyers generally oppose it because they want to hold on to tradition. Those in favor of the change want increased transparency.

Sen. Chuck Grassley, a nonlawyer and ranking member of the Judiciary Committee, has been fighting for a decade to open all federal courts to public scrutiny through broadcast. The Iowa Republican went to observe the oral arguments himself on Tuesday. “I was sitting there with 250 other people watching, and I thought it was too bad that millions couldn’t watch it,” he told The Washington Times in an interview. “This is one of the most important cases in the last 50 years, and televised proceedings could educate people not just on this issue, but on a main branch of government.”

Mr. Grassley authored a bill that would require the Supreme Court to allow coverage of all open sessions. The only exception would be on an occasion in which a majority of the justices vote that doing so might violate due process rights of one of the parties.

Despite the public support, there doesn’t seem to be the political will on Capitol Hill to press the issue. The Senate bill passed the Judiciary Committee in February with about an equal number of Republicans and Democrats on both sides of the vote.

Asked about timing for a floor vote, Mr. Grassley said he can’t do much in the minority, “but someone like [Sen. Charles E.] Schumer could force it to the floor.” The Washington Times asked Mr. Schumer, a member of leadership and co-sponsor of the bill, if it could get a vote this year. “I don’t think so,” said the New York Democrat. “No.”

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, a lawyer, wants the courts to stay the same. “I agree with the chief justice and others that we don’t want to turn the Supreme Court into a circus,” the Kentucky Republican told The Washington Times on Tuesday. “I don’t think given the controversial nature of the subjects they deal with, having their faces familiar to everyone is necessary for the justices. I am strongly opposed to it.”

Chief Justice John Roberts has not ruled out allowing cameras in his court, but so far he has only allowed audio recording of proceedings. A majority of justices are opposed. The court’s newest members, Justices Elena Kagan and Sonia Sotomayor, are the biggest proponents. Justices Clarence Thomas, Anthony Kennedy and Antonin Scalia hold the strongest views against the cameras, primarily because they fear it will turn the serious proceedings into silly entertainment. As the third branch of government, the court’s workings ought to be fully open so that the public can keep an eye on these lifetime appointments.

Emily Miller is a senior editor for the Opinion pages at The Washington Times.