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Can Congress force Supreme Court to let in cameras?

The Cameras in the Courtroom Act of 2011 would require TV coverage of all open sessions at the Supreme Court. Any legal challenge to the mandate would ultimately arrive at the Supreme Court – prompting a constitutional showdown.

By Staff writer / December 6, 2011

This photo shows the exterior of the Supreme Court in Washington. A proposed law would require the court to provide televised coverage of open sessions.

Alex Brandon/AP/File

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WASHINGTON

A proposed law ordering the US Supreme Court to provide live television coverage of its public proceedings threatens to spark a constitutional showdown pitting Congress against the nation’s highest court, legal experts warned members of the Senate Judiciary Committee on Tuesday.

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The experts were asked to analyze the Cameras in the Courtroom Act of 2011, which, if passed, would require television coverage of all open sessions at the high court.

“There are serious reasons to believe that legislatively overturning the court’s policy [currently banning television broadcasts] would be unconstitutional,” Supreme Court advocate Maureen Mahoney told the senators during a two-hour hearing.

“It would be an effort to strip the court of its authority to control proceedings in its own chamber,” she said. Congress has a degree of power over the high court, but it may not “impermissibly intrude on the judiciary,” Ms. Mahoney testified.

Supreme Court advocate Thomas Goldstein said that if the legislation passed Congress and was signed into law any resulting legal challenge to the broadcast mandate would ultimately arrive at the Supreme Court.

“Can you force them to do it – nobody knows,” Mr. Goldstein said. But he added: “In all likelihood, the answer is yes.”

But Goldstein’s final advice to federal lawmakers was to allow the justices to voluntarily change their policy rather than trying to force their hand.

“The trajectory is that it is inevitable that television will be in the Supreme Court,” he said. “And I would not provoke the constitutional controversy of requiring them to do it.”

The measure, introduced on Monday by Sens. Dick Durbin (D) of Illinois and Charles Grassley (R) of Iowa, is the latest in a long-running effort by some members of Congress to bring a higher level of transparency to the workings of the Supreme Court.

The effort comes in advance of much-anticipated oral arguments next year in cases examining the constitutionality of President Obama’s health-care reform law.

C-Span and other media outlets have asked Chief Justice John Roberts to permit live television coverage of the historic appeals. No decision has yet been announced.

Although many state courts have long operated under the watchful glare of media cameras, the federal judiciary has staked out a more cautious approach. There have been pilot projects allowing selective broadcasts of federal trials and appeals.

The Ninth US Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco, in particular, has embraced the presence of cameras as an aid to public scrutiny and understanding of the judicial process. In contrast, the US Supreme Court has consistently rebuffed invitations to wire up with cameras.

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