Senator renews effort to televise high court proceedings

Friday, February 9, 2007

Renewing his fight to bring more openness to the Supreme Court, Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., re-introduced a bill late last month that would allow high court proceedings to be televised for the first time.

Co-sponsored by Republican Sens. Charles Grassley (Iowa) and John Cornyn (Tex.) and Democrats Richard Durbin (Ill.), Charles Schumer (N.Y.) and Russ Feingold (Wis.), the legislation, S. 344, would allow cameras in all open sessions unless a majority of the justices said the coverage would violate the due-process rights of a party before the Court.

Specter is the ranking member of the Senate Judiciary Committee. Its chairman, Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., is the co-sponsor of a similar bill for federal trial and appellate courts. Leahy’s bill, called the Sunshine in the Courtroom Act of 2007 (S. 352), would give the justices the ability to choose whether the news media could cover a trial. That bill, introduced on Jan. 22 by Grassley and Schumer, would allow the presiding justice to permit the photographing, recording, broadcasting or televising of a trial unless it would interfere with due process.

“Anything that will help the people see how their courtrooms work … is beneficial for the public good,” said Gregg Leslie, the legal defense director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press.

“The issue is not media access, but that the public be allowed to see what goes on in the courtroom,” Leslie said.

In 2005, when he chaired the Judiciary Committee, Specter sponsored a hearing on allowing cameras in the courtroom.

During their respective confirmations, Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Samuel Alito both responded positively to questions about allowing the news media into the Supreme Court. Roberts said he would keep an open mind to the possibility while Alito reminded the senators that as a circuit judge he voted to allow televised proceedings.

Melanie Bengtson is an intern at the First Amendment Center and a sophomore studying developmental politics at Belmont University.

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