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`American Justices'?

April 30, 2006

ARLEN SPECTER, WHO AS CHAIRMAN of the Senate Judiciary Committee prides himself on grilling Supreme Court nominees, is now picking a fight with justices already on the bench. The Pennsylvania Republican is championing legislation to televise oral arguments before the court despite complaints by two justices that cameras would change the proceedings for the worse.

In a recent Op-Ed article in the Washington Post, Specter gave short shrift to a suggestion by Justice Anthony M. Kennedy that Congress should defer to the seemingly camera-shy court. Still smarting over court decisions invalidating acts of Congress, Specter suggested that "shining a televised light on the justices" would allow the nation to assess whether the court was cramping the legislative branch's style.

There may be more diplomatic ways to tell the court that it should catch up to the last century by submitting to the same cameras that are now trained on congressional proceedings and presidential addresses. And it may not be the best idea for Congress to force the court to welcome cameras. But on the merits (as lawyers like to say), Specter is right.

Cameras in the Supreme Court would provide C-SPAN junkies and ordinary citizens alike with "teachable moments" about controversies as diverse as abortion, the war on terrorism and the constitutionality of religious displays -- along with plenty of tedium when the legal issues aren't so sexy.

Oral arguments already are open to the media and some spectators, and transcripts and audio recordings eventually are made available. In newsworthy cases, the justices have been known to allow delayed audio broadcasts -- on the same day, no less.

But television would be different, some justices protest. During recent testimony before Congress on the court's budget, Justice Kennedy said that cameras would alter the distinctive "dynamic" of the court's proceedings. He was being polite. Undoubtedly, Justice Clarence Thomas came nearer to the real objection when he suggested that televised arguments would rob justices of their anonymity.

Judges aren't politicians, and members of the Supreme Court are right to be a little circumspect about their public appearances. But television footage of their questions to lawyers about statutory and constitutional issues would hardly turn them into robed American Idols. And if a member of the court were occasionally recognized at the cineplex or supermarket, would that really be such a bad thing?

Rather than waiting for Specter and his colleagues to engage them in a game of constitutional chicken, the justices should decide on their own that -- except when cameras would threaten due process in a particular case, a contingency even Specter concedes -- the court's arguments should be televised.

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