Thursday, December 23, 2010

Supreme Court On Cable, Online? Specter Said Yes

In his "Closing Arguments" Sen. Arlen Specter didn't mince words when talking about the US Supreme Court.

  • The Next Congress should try to stop the Supreme Court from further eroding the constitutional mandate of separation of powers. . .
  • Ignoring a massive congressional record and reversing recent decisions, Chief Justice Roberts and Justice Alito repudiated their confirmation testimony given under oath and provided the key votes to permit corporations and unions to secretly pay for political advertising, thus effectively undermining the basic democratic principle of the power of one person, one vote.
  • Chief Justice Roberts promised to just call balls and strikes. Then he moved the bases.
Recognizing the separation of powers doctrine limits what Congress can do, Specter recommends televising Supreme Court proceedings.

  . . . Congress could at least require televising the Court proceedings to provide some transparency to inform the public about what the Court is doing since it has the final word on the cutting issues of the day. Brandeis was right when he said that sunlight is the best disinfectant.
   The Court does follow the election returns, and the Court does judicially notice societal values as expressed by public opinion. Polls show that 85 percent of the American people favor televising the Court when told that a citizen can only attend an oral argument for 3 minutes in a chamber holding only 300 people. Great Britain, Canada, and State supreme courts permit television.
   Congress has the authority to legislate on this subject, just as Congress decides other administrative matters such as what cases the Court must hear, time limits for decisions, number of Justices, the day the Court convenes, and the number required for a quorum. While television cannot provide a definitive answer, it could be significant and may be the most that can be done consistent with life tenure and judicial independence.
But opening the Supreme Court to television is going to take a lot of citizen pressure.  It's hard getting Congress to open up.

From C-Span's website
On November 9, 2010, C-SPAN sent a letter to U.S. House Minority Leader Rep. John Boehner (R-OH), the presumptive next speaker, requesting that the House allow floor proceedings to also be covered by C-SPAN cameras.
House floor debates are currently televised by cameras owned, operated, and controlled by the House. Reaction shots and wide shots of the chamber are not permitted under House rules. C-SPAN, as well as other media outlets, must use the floor feed provided by the House in its coverage. Congressional policy does allow for C-SPAN's coverage of other Congressional events, such as committee hearings, press conferences, speeches, and the like, to be produced by its own cameras. C-SPAN argues that allowing its cameras to be installed in the House chamber would give the public a more complete and transparent view of Congressional debates. If granted permission to install cameras, C-SPAN proposes to make its feed available to accredited media and stream it live on its web site. 
[emphasis added in all the quotes above]

C-Span's been writing letters like this for a long time.  Here's a linked list of the letters they've sent to Congress, the Supreme Court, and others requesting access to televise proceedings.  And a couple of politely negative responses. 

C-SPAN's Requests for Increased Camera Coverage
Throughout its nearly 32-year history, C-SPAN has pushed for greater public access to the federal government, requesting more television access to the House and Senate and to the Supreme Court. Samples of earlier correspondence are listed below.

Back in the mid-80s I was convinced that the Anchorage Assembly needed to be on cable and worked hard to make it happen.  The basic concerns were things like:
  • Assembly members will play to the cameras
  • Poor people wouldn't have access
  • People, in general, wouldn't watch, so
  • It wasn't worth the cost
We got the Assembly to try it out for six months and found a low cost videographer who was willing - after some convincing - to use volunteer camera operators.

In only a couple of weeks the doubters were convinced.  They told me things like:
  • people come up to me in the market and say they saw me on cable
  • people testify, saying, "I saw this on television and had to come down. . ."
And they realized that poor people tend to have cable - it's much cheaper, per month, than taking the family to the movies.  

There is NO LEGITIMATE excuse not to have the Supreme Court arguments live on television and online.   "Dignity of the Institution" and such excuses are, well, just excuses.  The less Americans see, the more they speculate.  The more they see, the more they understand.  It's pretty simple.  The majority of American people can be trusted to watch democracy happen live.  The quality of our democracy improves as people see what is really going on.  People are much more likely to listen or watch than read. (Note:  this is opinion, not necessarily fact.)

Yes some will try to abuse the broadcasts and play snippets out of context on YouTube.  So what?  Others will correct them, because they'll have access to the whole proceedings.  The only possible losers are judges who aren't competent or are not fulfilling their duties.

While writing this I came across the name Carl Malamud.  He's someone we all should know.  He's used his imagination and understanding of how people work to get government information online.  James Fallow wrote:
. . . An internet innovator named Carl Malamud is correcting this with a kind of web-based supplement to C-Span. Ten years ago Malamud tricked the Securities and Exchange Commission into making corporate financial data available free, on line. The corporate filings were already public in theory but in practice were hard to find. Malamud set up his own free web site with searchable access to the filings . After two years of operation, when the site had become widely popular, he said he would close it in 60 days and told people how to complain to the SEC if they wanted to keep getting the data. The resulting public demand forced the SEC to set up its own site.

Malamud is now doing the same thing with hearings. The committees have their own webcasting services to record their meetings, but the recordings are not centrally catalogued or, in most cases, easy to download. Also, C-Span asserts copyright over its own recordings, so they cannot be distributed over the web. Malamud is amassing the committees' recordings, converting them to a standard format, and making them available, free. If you go to and enter the search term "hooptedoodle" (a literary allusion to John Steinbeck), you'll see his collection. He hopes people will eventually ask why Congress is not doing this job itself. . . 

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