Specter, others push for courtroom cameras

When Samuel Alito explains his judicial philosophy to senators, cable subscribers can watch him do it on C-SPAN, which broadcasts congressional hearings and floor debates.

But TV audiences won’t have the same opportunity to witness Alito actually implement that philosophy if he wins confirmation to the U.S. Supreme Court, where he would replace Justice Sandra Day O’Connor.

Unlike the halls of Congress, the marbled room in which the country’s top judges practice their trade is off-limits to cameras, leaving artist renditions in news reports as the only images coming out of the third and, some argue, most secretive branch of government.

But the news channel that televised the murder trials of O.J. Simpson and the Menendez brothers is lobbying to have the chance to showcase historic, if less sensational, cases such as McCreary County Board, Kentucky v. the American Civil Liberties Union, which further defined the separation of church and state, or MGM Studios v. Grokster, in which the court held that file-sharing companies could be sued for copyright infringement.  

Cameras in courtrooms “enhance public scrutiny of the judicial system” and “ensure fairness of court proceedings,” said Court TV CEO Henry Schleiff, who is testifying before a Senate panel this week on the subject.

Quoting Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis, Schleiff added: “Sunshine is the best disinfectant.”

The channel has hired the firm Preston Gates Ellis & Rouvelas Meeds to lobby in support of two bills in Congress that would expand the use of cameras in courtrooms.

Court TV already has influential backers. Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), for example, is pushing one measure that would require the nation’s highest court to televise its proceedings unless a majority of justices rule that a litigant’s rights would be upset.

Five other Judiciary Committee members — Sens. John Cornyn (R-Texas), Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), Russ Feingold (D-Wis.), Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) — along with Sen. George Allen (R-Va.) have signed on as co-sponsors.

“The public has the right to know what the Supreme Court is doing,” Specter said in a floor statement earlier this year.

The public can attend court proceedings or read about them in newspapers, Specter noted. But while cameras are allowed in lesser courtrooms, “the public has little access to the most important and highest court in this country,” Specter said.

Grassley is pushing another bill that would allow cameras not only in the Supreme Court but also in federal and appellate courts. His bill, which has 10 co-sponsors, would leave the decision to allow cameras to the judge. There is a companion measure in the House to Grassley’s bill but not to Specter’s.

The Senate Judiciary Committee is holding a hearing tomorrow on cameras in the courtroom in which Schlieff and others are expected to testify.

Specter has pushed his bill since at least 2000, but even as he has risen to the top slot on the committee the measure has not had a vote.

The bills face resistance in the legal community, and among Supreme Court justices themselves. Justice Antonin Scalia, for example, has spoken against allowing cameras in the courtroom, fearing the process would be compromised by their presence.

The Judicial Conference, created by Congress in 1922 to adopt administrative policies for the federal court system, has voted to allow the nation’s 13 courts of appeals to choose for themselves whether to allow cameras to cover their proceedings. But only two appeals courts now allow cameras; the remainder has adopted explicit resolutions prohibiting cameras.

Cameras are not allowed in federal criminal or civil trials. A pilot program the conference conducted in the early 1990s found that cameras had a “chilling affect on witnesses,” said Karen Redmond, a spokeswoman for the conference.

A witness for the conference is expected to testify tomorrow.