Televising the Supreme Court: An actual bipartisan issue (really!)

     Anti-gay marriage protestors demonstrate in front of the Supreme Court in Washington, Monday, April 27, 2015. The opponents of same-sex marriage are urging the court to resist embracing what they see as a radical change in society's view of what constitutes marriage. (AP Photo/Cliff Owen)

    Anti-gay marriage protestors demonstrate in front of the Supreme Court in Washington, Monday, April 27, 2015. The opponents of same-sex marriage are urging the court to resist embracing what they see as a radical change in society's view of what constitutes marriage. (AP Photo/Cliff Owen)

    On the sidewalk fronting the U. S. Supreme Court, people have been camping out for days – in the hopes of snagging seats for Tuesday’s historic gay-marriage argumentation. It’s too bad all Americans won’t be able to watch as well.

    In our polarized era, few issues attract landslide bipartisan support. But most Americans have long believed that the nine berobed brethren should be captured live on camera – in action, as it were – asking the questions and pondering the cases that often affect our lives for generations. These justices hold the most powerful jobs in government, and have the final word on virtually every hot-button dispute. All the more reason why they should be far more transparent, in the spirit of the First Amendment that they so often invoke and uphold.

    And since all 50 states allow televised court coverage, and since the high courts in Britain, Australia, and Canada do the same, why should the U. S. Supremes get a pass?

    This issue pops up every few years, especially when arguments have been scheduled in a particularly hot case. In 2006, a Fox News poll reported 63 percent support for televised coverage. In late 2011, Gallup reported 72 percent support for televising arguments about Obamacare. Last August, McLaughlin & Associates, a Republican survey firm, found 74 percent support for putting cameras in the chamber. And what’s most noteworthy, in all those polls, is that support for transparency crosses ideological lines; by roughly the same percentages, Republicans and Democrats say thumbs up.

    It’s the same in Congress. Right now, both chambers have bipartisan bills – in the House, the Transparency in Government Act; in the Senate, the Cameras in the Courtroom Act – that are designed to goad the court into opening up. Liberal Democrats are on the same page as congressional conservatives like Steve King (how often does that happen?). King pointed out last winter that while millions of Americans watch the Super Bowl, “only a handful of people” had the chance to watch the live oral arguments in Bush v. Gore.

    An attorney named Jonathan Sherman also made a good point the other day, in a guest column: Since the high court is such a big fan of the First Amendment – money is speech, according to Citizens United – then it should apply the same principle to itself, and let the sunshine in. And he quoted Justice John Marshall Harlan, who presciently wrote, in a 1965 decision, “The day may come when television will have become so commonplace an affair in the daily life of the average person as to dissipate all reasonable likelihood that its use in the courtroom may disparage the judicial process. If and when that day arrives, (the issue) would of course be subject to re-examination.”

    That day actually came and went years ago; in 2015, “televison” is an archaic word, because we’re now well into the era of cord-cutting and live-streaming.

    The problem, however, is that no law can compel the independent high court to do what it clearly doesn’t want to do. Anthony Kennedy has said, “We teach, by having no cameras, that we are different.” Antonin Scalia has said that most Americans “would see nothing by a 30-second takeout” on the news. (Granted, sound bites are inevitable, but shouldn’t we have the chance to see and hear the proceedings in full context, in order to best judge whether the soundbites are fair?) Chief Justice John Roberts has said, “We worry about the impact on lawyers,” that they would grandstand for the cameras. (Rebutting that one is easy. Why would lawyers grandstand – knowing that if they did so, they’d infuriate the justices?)

    Worst of all, Obama appointees Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan have apparently drunk the Kool-Aid. Four years ago, Kagan was bullish about cameras; recalling her days in the chamber as U. S. Solicitor General, she said, “Everybody was so prepared, so smart, so obviously deeply concerned about getting to the right answer. I thought, ‘If everybody could see this, it would make people feel so good about this branch of government.'” but earlier this year, she said she’s wary of anything “that may upset the dynamic of the institution.” Similarly, Sotomayor said at her ’09 confirmation hearing that she was open to cameras, but now she cites the grandstand argument and says “I think it might be a bad idea.”

    Oh well. I guess Mark Cady, the chief justice of the Iowa Supreme Court, didn’t know what he was talking about when he said – four years ago – that cameras in his court have been a big plus: “The more the public sees our courts operate, the more they like and respect the court system.” Given the high court’s low job approval rating – Gallup says it’s a near-record low – you’d think that the institution might want to consider joining the 21st century.

    And hey, if the proceedings were live-streamed, we might even catch a rare glimpse of Clarence Thomas actually asking a question – with words and everything. That alone would be riveting video.

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    Meanwhile…

    On a radio show the other day, Mitt Romney said this: “I mean, there is every appearance that Hillary Clinton was bribed to grease the sale of what, 20 percent of America’s uranium production to Russia….This is a very, very serious series of facts, and it looks like bribery.”

    See, here’s the problem for Republicans. They chronically overreach; it’s in their DNA, especially when they assail the Clintons. Witness Romney, a two-time loser and well-documented serial liar, running his mouth without a scintilla of empirical evidence. Yeah, the Clinton Foundation has been rapacious and reckless about racking up foreign donations (as I said Friday), but “bribery” is a very specific criminal allegation, and the 2012 loser of 11 swing states does his party a great disservice by talking out of his derriere.

    Yeah, hard questions need to be asked about the Clinton Foundation. But Republicans like Romney, who are so eager to speed from zero to 60 on the Russia-uranium story, might want to heed what Fox News Sunday host Chris Wallace said to conservative author Peter Schweizer:

    “Nine separate agencies (had to approve that uranium sale). There’s no hard evidence, and you don’t cite any in the book, that Hillary Clinton took direct action, was involved in any way in approving (the sale)….Again, if I may, you don’t have a single piece of evidence that she was involved in this deal, that she sent a memo to the person – the State Department representative who was on this (approval) committee – and said, ‘hey, we want to approve the Uranium One sale.'”

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