The first bill, charmingly called the Sunshine in the Courtroom Act, would give federal judges the authority to permit cameras in their courtrooms on a case by case basis, and calls for the Judicial Conference to draft guidelines for implementation that would protect the identities of undercover policemen and victims of crimes. The second bill would permit cameras to televise oral arguments in the Supreme Court, but allow the Court to vote to ban them in individual cases. The bills, supported by the Democratic chairman of the Judiciary Committee, Senator Leahy, and the senior Republican on the committee, Senator Grassley, will now go to the full Senate for approval.
The courts lag far behind the legislative branch of government when it comes to opening their proceedings to a wide audience. Transparency is a key component of legitimacy and in an era where distrust of the government is rampant, democracy is, according to many, best served in a glass viewing booth. However it remains to be seen whether or not this will serve as a mostly symbolic gesture. C-SPAN has covered Congress and Congressional committees for years and there's nothing to support the idea that this has done anything to increase the public's confidence in Congress. If anything, public support for the legislative branch continues to hover somewhere below the Mendoza Line. Opening the courtrooms to cameras runs the risk of trials being turned in to sound bites - 15 years later the phrase “If it doesn't fit you must acquit” still pops up in popular culture. This risk is magnified when it comes to the Supreme Court, where oral arguments are heard on issues that are deeply divisive and it's hardly a stretch to imagine both parties using footage of various Justices asking questions out of context as part of political maneuvering.
Yet despite the inherent risks, I remain a strong advocate of broadcasting most courtroom activity, if for no other reason than I am a political junky. Political geeks like me are a widely overlooked subclass in today's society and we deserve special protection from the courts. I fantasize about watching the Court struggle with wedge issues the way some men dream of season tickets behind the first base dugout. I don't know how the full Senate will vote on this bill but I can promise you one thing -when they do, I'll be watching. Thank you C-SPAN!