Bill to put cameras in Supreme Court won’t pass before healthcare challenge

A bipartisan effort to allow cameras in the Supreme Court is not going to pass Congress before justices tackle what has been dubbed the “case of the century.”

The legislation, which has bounced around in both the House and Senate for a decade, gathered momentum last year when the high court agreed to hear challenges to President Obama’s healthcare reform law. The idea of putting cameras in the Supreme Court is supported by politicians on the left and right, including House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) and Rep. Ted Poe (R-Texas). 

With oral arguments scheduled in March, however, the legislation has stalled in both chambers as legislative leaders weigh the wisdom of telling the judicial branch how to do its business.

Legislation cleared the Senate Judiciary Committee this month, but has not been scheduled for a floor vote. 

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House leaders have also been mum about their plans for the bill, although they’ve been skeptical of TV coverage in the past. Last year, House lawyers who answer to Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) objected to televised coverage of a challenge to the federal Defense of Marriage Act in California federal court. With regard to the Supreme Court bill, House leaders have referred questions to Judiciary Committee Chairman Lamar Smith (R-Texas), who has refused to answer any questions about his plans for the measure sponsored by Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.). 

Proponents of televised coverage have tried to build momentum for it by tying it to public interest in the health law.

Cameras, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) said during his markup of the bill, would “deepen Americans’ understanding” of the court’s work at a time of “tremendous public interest” surrounding the healthcare reform law case. The panel cleared the bill 11-7, mostly along party lines. 

A Durbin aide said the second-ranking Democrat in the upper chamber is working to get the bill on the floor for a vote “this spring.”

Connolly said a Senate vote would help. 

“We need to re-examine the ‘juridical priesthood’ aspect of the Supreme Court. This is the third branch of the government, and under the Constitution it is as accountable as any other branch,” Connolly told The Hill. “I think the Congress has a right to protect the public’s interests, and the way we do that is by spreading a little sunshine on their public deliberations.”

Still, he called it a “missed opportunity” that the bill won’t pass before the Supreme Court hears arguments on the healthcare reform law, which he called a “seismic event.” He added that however the justices rule, the pressure will only grow for the court to open up its proceedings for the public to watch.

Last fall, C-SPAN founder and CEO Brian Lamb sent a letter to Chief Justice John Roberts calling for cameras to be allowed into the high court. The letter stated, “It is a case which affects every American’s life, our economy, and will certainly be an issue in the upcoming presidential campaign.” C-SPAN has not yet received a response.

The next day, Pelosi embraced the idea, saying, “Openness and transparency are essential to the success of our democracy, and in this historic debate, we must ensure the ability of our citizens to take part.”

In a poll conducted late last year by Penn Schoen Berland, 64 percent of respondents agreed that the Supreme Court should allow television coverage of its oral arguments, while 36 percent disagreed. 

Critics worry that the cameras will turn court proceedings into a circus.

“The last thing we need in the Supreme Court is justices and lawyers mugging for the cameras,” said Tom Fitton, president of the conservative public interest group Judicial Watch. “It’s already too political as it is.

“Cases before the Supreme Court aren’t decided at oral argument,” Fitton added, “so the idea that cameras would provide you with great insight — that’s just show business.”

Other groups disagree.

The liberal advocacy group Health Care for America Now has signed on to a petition calling for passage of the camera bill.

“The court itself clearly recognizes the significance of this case and its wide-ranging impact,” said Melanie Sloan, executive director of the petition sponsor, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington. “The Supreme Court only offers seating for about 250 visitors, but as we will all be affected by the court’s decision, we should all have a front-row seat to hear the arguments.”

The justices themselves are split.

The newer members of the court have been more open to the idea, with Justice Elena Kagan showing the most enthusiasm, calling it a “terrific” idea during her confirmation hearing in 2010. 

Justice Sonia Sotomayor said she has had “positive experiences with cameras,” while Justice Samuel Alito pointed out three years earlier that he’d voted for coverage as a judge on the 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg has also expressed support.

Roberts, during his confirmation hearing in 2005, said, “I don’t have a set view.”

Even backers, however, say they would never impose their preference on colleagues who object.

And those justices have by far the strongest feelings on the issue.

“The day you see a camera come into our courtroom,” former Justice David Souter said in 1996, “it’s going to roll over my dead body.” Souter retired in 2009.

Justice Clarence Thomas testified before Congress in 2006 that allowing cameras “runs the risk of undermining the manner in which we consider the cases.” And Justice Antonin Scalia told an Aspen Institute forum in 2005 that “15-second take-outs on the network news” would “misinform the public rather than inform the public” about the sorts of cases the high court usually hears and how it decides them.