Judiciary panel advances bill to compel Supreme Court to televise proceedings

A handful of lawmakers on the Senate Judiciary Committee hope to compel the Supreme Court to begin televising its proceedings.

Days after Justice Steven Breyer shot down the prospect that the high bench would permit cameras in the court room this year, 13 committee members from both parties voted to advance legislation that would force SCOTUS to do just that. 

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A similar effort to express the "sense of the Senate in support of permitting the televising of Supreme Court proceedings" also cleared the committee on a 13-6 vote on Thursday. However, that effort is more symbolic, and would not have the force of law.

“Television coverage of the Supreme Court is long overdue, and I’m pleased that the Committee made progress on this front today,” said Sen. Arlen Specter (D-Pa.).  “The Supreme Court makes pronouncements on Constitutional and federal law that have a direct impact on the rights of all Americans. Those rights would be substantially enhanced by televising the oral arguments of the Court so that the public can see and hear the issues presented.”

The committee also cleared a third bill on Thursday that would instruct lower federal district and circuit courts to televise their proceedings too. Led by Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), the legislation carves out an exception for cases that could "endanger trial participants."

“Except for rare closed sessions, the proceedings of Congress and its Committees are open to the public and are carried live on cable television and radio,” said Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee.

"All 50 states have allowed some form of audio or video coverage of court proceedings," he continued. "The bills advanced by the Judiciary Committee will allow more Americans to witness the Federal courts’ public proceedings.  This is an important issue, and one I hope the Senate will consider this Congress.”

Both congressional lawmakers and reporters for C-SPAN have long pressed the high bench, in particular, to allow cameras to film oral arguments. But the Supreme Court again threw cold water on that request this month, when justices declined C-SPAN's offer to televise parts of a hot-button First Amendment case.

Justice Breyer later told congressional lawmakers during a hearing this month that a pilot program to televise proceedings in lower courts would not soon expand to SCOTUS.

"No," Breyer tersely told Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) during the hearing. "It wouldn't be in our court... It has to do with the lower court."

Still, the Supreme Court's reluctance to permit cameras has hardly deterred members of the Senate Judiciary Committee, at least, from attempting to mandate such a practice through legislation.

“The Supreme Court has a tremendous amount of influence on the lives of Americans across the country, yet, too often people know little about what the Court does and the rationale behind the decisions," Grassley said.  "Allowing cameras in the Supreme Court will help bring much-needed transparency to a process that is largely unknown to the American public."