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Friday, June 14, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

New bill would turn on cameras at Supreme Court arguments

Democrats and Republicans in the Senate are joining forces to bring Supreme Court arguments into the 21st century. 

WASHINGTON (CN) — A bipartisan group of lawmakers introduced a bill Thursday that takes another shot at putting cameras in the Supreme Court. 

Chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee Dick Durbin was joined by his Republican colleague Chuck Grassley to introduce the Cameras in the Courtroom Act — an effort to televise Supreme Court hearings. Democratic Senators Amy Klobuchar and Richard Blumenthal co-sponsored the legislation. 

Cameras in the courtroom have always been strictly banned. So was the public, briefly, at the height of the Covid-19 pandemic, but the high court ordinarily keeps its doors open to oral argument sessions. Spots in the courtroom are limited, however, and sometimes only procured by waiting in hours-long lines. 

The new bill would force the court to allow television coverage of all open court sessions, albeit with an opportunity for the justices to vote on forgoing the cameras if the due process rights of a party before them are at risk. 

Durbin said the American people have shown an interest in watching the court’s proceedings but are unable to do so unless they visit Washington. 

“Rulings made by Justices in our nation’s highest court impact the lives of every American, regardless of zip code,” Durbin said in a statement. “We see an ever-apparent interest for the American people to be able to witness the highest court’s proceedings, from seemingly routine sessions to oral arguments in high-profile cases like Dobbs and Bruen, for example.” 

The first case Durbin referenced, Dobbs, obliterated the federal right to abortion, while the second, Bruen, expanded gun rights.

Grassley hailed the cameras-in-the-court effort as an attempt at greater transparency and better public understanding. 

“The judicial branch has a massive impact on our daily lives and the lives of generations to come, yet few Americans ever get the chance to see inside the legal process,” Grassley said in a statement. “Allowing cameras access to Supreme Court would be a victory for transparency and would help the American people grow in confidence and understanding of the judiciary.” 

Last year, a C-SPAN/Pierrepont poll found that the majority of likely voters wanted TV coverage at the court, with 70% of voters saying it would build public trust. While the court does not allow cameras in the courtroom, it has continued its pandemic-era practice of livestreaming audio of oral arguments. Opinion announcements are excluded from this feature. 

The justices have argued against cameras in the courtroom in the past. In 2019, Justice Samuel Alito said cameras would undermine the value of oral arguments because lawyers and the justices would be vying for soundbites. Justice Elena Kagan shared a similar sentiment, positing that the justices would censor themselves. 

The Ninth Circuit is the only one of the nation’s 207 federal courts that regularly televises its hearings. Trials and appeals in state courts, however, are broadcast every day. 

Although newly introduced, the Cameras in the Courtroom Act is not new itself. The legislation was advanced out of the Judiciary Committee last Congress on a bipartisan 15-7 vote. Court watchers say the new legislation is nearly identical to prior versions, and it is unclear how this new effort will gain additional momentum when others did not. 

“Nearly identical bills have been introduced for two-plus decades, so if Sens. Durbin and Grassley wanted to put the weight of their leadership positions behind them, they would have done so by now,” Gabe Roth, executive director of Fix the Court, said in a statement. “In other words, I don't expect anything to change this year vis-a-vis chances for passage.” 

Follow @KelseyReichmann
Categories / Courts, Government, Media, National

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