WASHINGTON – Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts made his national television debut months ago, but he won't be making a follow-up appearance anytime soon with his new gavel in his new courtroom.
That's because Supreme Court justices don't allow cameras, tape recorders or electronic devices into their chambers or courtroom.
But that could change under a Senate bill that would put cameras in the nation's highest court for the first time.
Some senators want proceedings in federal courts, including the Supreme Court, to be televised. Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., chairman of the Judiciary Committee, has sponsored a Senate measure calling for it.
"I think this is the year to make this law," Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., told the Senate Judiciary Committee on Wednesday. "No branch of our government has remained a greater mystery to our average people than our federal courts."
Supporters reignited the issue after Roberts said in his Senate confirmation hearings that he was open to the idea of allowing cameras in the court. The chief justice's predecessor, the late William H. Rehnquist, opposed the measure.
"[Roberts] seemed to have a great deal of open mindedness on this subject," Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, said in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee.
But not everyone supports the idea, including some Supreme Court justices.
“The day you see a camera come into our courtroom, it’s going to roll over my dead body," Associate Justice David Souter said during a 1996 hearing on Capitol Hill.
"A number of people would want to make us part of the national entertainment network," Associate Justice Anthony Kennedy said Thursday during an American Bar Association event on the importance of law in the United States and abroad.
Associate Justice Antonin Scalia has also said “not a chance” when asked if he could support cameras in the high court. Scalia also doesn't allow television cameras to tape his speeches.
The Senate bill would allow television coverage of all open sessions of the Supreme Court as long as a majority vote of justices allows it or unless they rule that it would constitute a violation of due process rights of one or more parties.
The House voted Wednesday to give federal judges the power to televise court hearings.
Public Eye vs. Privacy
While supporters say cameras in the courtroom would educate the public about the judicial branch and offer a first person account of its proceedings, opponents worry that witnesses, cameras that could broadcast nationwide might intimidate jurors and defendants.
"None of us, I think, wants to do anything to harm that institution, irrespective of what kind of slogan you can give for one side or the other," Associate Justice Stephen Breyer said Thursday.
Every state allows some form of audio coverage of court proceedings, according to the National Center for State Courts.
Grassley testified Wednesday that bipartisan legislation will educate the public about the judicial process, and increased public scrutiny brings greater accountability to the court.
"The sun needs to shine in on the federal courts," Grassley said.
But some judges told the Senate committee that under pilot programs in their courts, cameras have made witnesses nervous, less willing to appear in court and caused other disruptions to cases.
"I think the cameras do more than just report proceedings, they affect the substance of the proceedings," said Judge Jan DuBois, of the District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania.
High profile cases can attract lots of media attention when judges allow cameras in their courtrooms. The murder trial of football star O.J. Simpson allowed American TV viewers to follow every step of the proceedings. Simpson's acquittal in the 1995 case in which he was accused of murdering his ex-wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, and her friend, Ronald Goldman, even caused racial divides in parts of the country.
"I do think about the O.J. Simpson case," Breyer said Thursday. "I think I'm not certain I would vote in favor of having them in every criminal trial in the country."
Other experts say Congress is using the issue to argue the Supreme Court should be held to the same standards as the legislative branch of government.
“I think Congress views the court in that kind of parallelism way,” said Stephen Wermiel, who teaches constitutional law at American University.
Wermiel said Congress views the Supreme Court as a coequal branch of government. The House and Senate allow cameras into floor debates and hearings, and lawmakers say it's a form of public oversight.
“I think that it would be a sign of streaming the relations between the two branches to a new level of stress,” Wermiel said. “I think Congress has to understand that at least some members of the court are vehemently opposed to this."
Television Execs Go to Bat for Cameras
Television executives testified on behalf of the bill, saying it would ensure that court proceedings allow the public to gain confidence in the judiciary branch.
C-SPAN, which broadcasts live coverage of the House and Senate chambers and other political events, meetings and hearings on its network, promotes educating the public through televised court proceedings. The network would show full coverage of every oral argument, said Brian Lamb, founder and chairman of C-SPAN.
"At a time when most Americans get most of their information about their government from television, it is simply unacceptable for the Supreme Court to shield itself from the public by keeping the cameras out," Lamb said. "If the cameras are let in, the C-SPAN Networks will do our part."
Other TV executives also testified on behalf of the bill.
"I do believe that all citizens today — not just the print press or those few who can fit into a courtroom — should be able to watch their judicial system in action," said Henry Schleiff, Court TV chairman and chief executive.
Court TV, which is available in 85 million homes according to its Web site, broadcasts live and taped trials for daytime viewers and news coverage in primetime. The network has shown 30,000 hours of courtroom proceedings since 1991, Schleiff said.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.