For the first time in more than a decade, a legislative effort to capture Supreme Court hearings and other federal court proceedings on camera has cleared the Senate committee.
On Thursday, the Senate Judiciary Committee approved two bills aimed at increasing transparency and accountability in the nation’s highest courts. The Cameras in the Courtroom Act “requires the Supreme Court to permit television coverage of all open sessions of the court,” although the justices can still vote to deny broadcasts if they believe such coverage could directly impact the proceedings. The second bill, the Sunshine in the Courtroom Act, grants judges in all federal courts the discretion to allow cameras in the courtroom provided that the identities of witnesses and jurors are protected when necessary.
First introduced in March, the bills have secured bipartisan support, including an endorsement from both the panel’s chair, Senator Richard Durbin of Illinois, and the committee’s ranking Republican member, Senator Chuck Grassley of Iowa, Politico reports. This marks the first time such legislation has cleared the Senate committee in more than a decade, according to the judicial system watchdog Fix the Court. Several members spoke strongly in favor of the bills on Thursday.
“I have been introducing legislation to open up our courtrooms to the American people for over 25 years now,” said Grassley in a statement. “I think if the American people can see how justice is done, they’ll have a better appreciation for it. Right now the working of the courts is a remote process that most people don’t really know about unless they’re lawyers or criminals. These bills would help change that.”
Senator Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, a former prosecutor herself, pointed to the recent trial of former Minneapolis cop and convicted murderer Derek Chauvin as an example of how the transparency that broadcasts provide can improve the public’s trust in the judicial system as a whole.
“It was a moment of redemption in part because people could see their fellow citizens talk about what happened,” Klobuchar said Thursday. “If that hadn’t been televised, the verdict could probably have been the same, but people wouldn’t have been able to see that and share in that moment.”
Of course, not everyone on the Judiciary Committee was singing the bills’ praises. Several Republican lawmakers opposed the transparency measures or attempted to water them down, Politico reports. Senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas called the legislation “ill-advised” and argued that the nation’s court system is transparent enough as it stands. Senator Ted Cruz of Texas warned that opening federal courts to cameras could also open them up to the kind of showboating and theatrics endemic to reality TV.
“I think it is better for our country if the Supreme Court is a little more boring and doesn’t have Judge Judy as the dynamic in the courtroom,” he said.
In pre-pandemic times, the Supreme Court made audio recordings of its proceedings public at the end of each week. Widespread lockdowns related to the spread of covid-19 led the court to provide live audio broadcasts of oral arguments for the first time in its history beginning in May 2020, something many federal appeals courts had already been doing even before the pandemic.
However, video recordings have always been a strict no-no in the nation’s highest court, though, in the last year, federal courts have been taking advantage of a provision of the CARES Act allowing hearings in criminal cases to be held by video conference or teleconference due to the pandemic.