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Q&A on Cameras in the Courtroom


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Q: Who is able to witness arguments made in a case before the Supreme Court?
A: The Supreme Court case to consider the constitutionality of the health care law enacted in 2010 has brought public access to court proceedings front and center. While arguments are made for and against the sweeping health care law that requires citizens to obtain health insurance and puts unprecedented demands on states to provide Medicaid coverage, the justices, the lawyers, a few reporters, and 250 people have the opportunity to see them. Some people with these seats may stay for the entire argument. Others must leave the courtroom and give their seats to the next in line after three to five minutes. In response to requests from me and others, the Supreme Court is making audio recordings of arguments available on its website later the same day.

Q: What about anyone else being able to see the arguments?
A: I've been working to give America a front-row seat to Supreme Court cases, as well as the proceedings in the nation's federal courts. I've sponsored legislation for more than a decade to grant federal judges the authority to allow cameras in federal courtrooms. That sunshine legislation has been passed many times by the Senate Judiciary Committee and with bipartisan support. I've also introduced legislation for broadcast coverage of the Supreme Court, and the Judiciary Committee has voted to pass such a reform.

Short of enacting legislation, this year I appealed to the Supreme Court to allow broadcast coverage of the health care case. Every citizen is impacted by this law, and it affects one-sixth of the nation's economy. The first time I appealed for broadcast coverage of oral arguments before the Supreme Court was in 2000 in the Bush v. Gore case regarding the presidential election. Audio was released immediately following the arguments. Since then, the Court occasionally releases the audio of oral arguments the day it hears significant cases. However, in most cases the Supreme Court now releases the audio recording of arguments at the end of each week.

In addition, a three-year experiment now is under way allowing camera coverage in 14 federal district courts across the country, including the Southern District of Iowa, in civil proceedings. This program was adopted by the Judicial Conference, the policy-making entity for the federal courts, because of congressional interest.

These are steps in the right direction, but more can be done and should be done, so I will continue to work for passage of both pieces of legislation and complete access to the proceedings of the Supreme Court and federal courts.

Q: What's the basis for your effort to allow broadcast coverage?
A: Allowing cameras in the federal courtroom is consistent with the intent of America's founders that trials be held in front of as many people as choose to attend. The First Amendment requires court proceedings to be open to the public and, by extension, news media. As the Supreme Court articulated in 1947, in Craig v. Harney, "A trial is a public event." And, "What transpires in the courtroom is public property … ." Beyond First Amendment implications, enactment of my legislation also would assist courts in complying with the Sixth Amendment's guarantee of public trials in criminal cases.

Public access to the proceedings of the courts reflects the democratic values of government transparency, due process, integrity of court proceedings, and civic education. The best way to make sure government is accountable to the people is to establish transparency.

Most every state allows broadcast coverage of state courts. In Iowa, it's been the case for more than 30 years. In fact, for the Iowa Supreme Court, expanded media coverage includes not only traditional broadcast but also live and archived streams of all oral arguments. The Chief Justice of the Iowa Supreme Court testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee in Washington last December about the success and value of this accessibility. He said that "cameras expose the courts to what they are -- a proud institution of justice."

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