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Put cameras in the U.S. Supreme Court

Inside the chambers of the U.S. Supreme Court

Inside the chambers of the U.S. Supreme Court chambers Photo Credit: U.S. Supreme Court

The U.S. Supreme Court will hear arguments this March in one of the era's most significant cases about the reach of the federal government: the constitutionality of the far-reaching changes in health care that President Barack Obama considers his signature achievement. The ruling will determine the direction of health care for the nation and could influence the outcome of the 2012 presidential election.

Only a privileged few, however, will be able to watch the Supreme Court argument about the legality of the individual mandate to all Americans to buy health insurance. That mandate is at the heart of the Patient Protection and Affordable Health Care law. The time has come for the nine justices, who have life tenure and are anonymous to most of the public, to drop the court's historic cloak of secrecy on a public process.

The action must be televised. C-SPAN has requested permission to broadcast the oral argument in this one case live and distribute it to other media outlets. A Gallup poll shows that 72 percent of the nation favors televising it, as do elected officials of all stripes. And the court took the extraordinary step of scheduling 5 1/2 hours of oral argument from March 26 to 28. Clearly, the justices realize, it's no ordinary case.

Such a new level of openness would serve the interests of the court and the nation and head off an improper attempt by Congress to pass a law demanding televised proceedings.

The two newest associate justices, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan, support courtroom cameras, an indication of today's reality. Chief Justice John Roberts has been noncommittal; his predecessor was strongly opposed.

One of our most important traditions is our open courtrooms. Allowing the public to witness the justice system at work contributes to its understanding of the law, the Constitution, the courts and the complex legal disputes they resolve. It's the best way to showcase the rigor the Supreme Court brings to the task, help the public understand its reasoning and maintain the court's credibility.

Historically, openness meant allowing people inside the nation's courtrooms. That's too limited today. The imposing marble court chamber has room for only 400 spectators. Once guests of the justices, visiting dignitaries and journalists are accommodated, there are few seats left for the general public. Those who want one have to go to Washington, line up, wait and hope.

In this high-tech era, access should include live television and video streaming online. A much less preferable alternative is closed-circuit TV piped into places like schools, libraries and other courthouses.

Cameras are routine in the tribunals of many nations and in state courts. There have been sporadic experiments with them in federal trial and appeals courts. Yet the nation's highest tribunal has never offered an official reason for its arbitrary behavior in rejecting televising, though justices have expressed concerns that participants will play to the cameras or that hearings will be reduced to entertainment.

Those are losing -- even arrogant -- arguments to make to a sophisticated audience that expects and is entitled to witness public events crucial to their well-being and that of the nation.