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The Call For Cameras In The Courtroom

Posted: 03/26/2012 8:00 am

It was a gray and rainy weekend in Washington, D.C.

The nine Supreme Court Justices were warm and dry in their homes and chambers.

But scores of people sat on the cold and wet sidewalk outside the Supreme Court building for days.

They were dressed in ponchos. They were sitting on lawn chairs. They were exposed to the elements, because no tents were allowed. Police officers were watching their every move.



Oh, and sprinklers that water more people than flowers came on in the middle of the night, too.

Why were these people sitting in the rain all weekend, and why are many of them still there? Because they were waiting for one of the coveted seats at the arguments challenging the Affordable Care Act on Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday. How many of them will gain admission? Only 60 for each session.

Only a tiny fraction of the hundreds of millions of Americans who have expressed interest in the cases -- a poll last week revealed that 95 percent of Americans will be following the proceedings in the news -- will see the landmark arguments. They are people like Kathie McClure, who is fifth in line and hopes to be able to wait it out until Tuesday. She's there to witness history in the making, but she's also there to make a statement. There's no justice in this system, she believes. You shouldn't have to survive two Outward Bound courses to be able to witness the Justices in action.

And you know something has gone haywire when there are uninsured and underemployed ringers at the front of the line risking sickness (or lightning-strike!) to sit through a thunderstorm so that a Washington alpha-lawyer paying $40/hour can take his place Tuesday morning to root on the Affordable Care Act's downfall.

Yes, there is something wrong with this picture. And what's wrong is that there's no picture at all.

Even after an extensive building renovation and restoration, the Supreme Court only seats about 250 members of the public. But there's no reason for anyone to wait in the rain to see the Court doing its work. No reason, that is, except for the Justices' steadfast refusal to allow video broadcasts of oral arguments, including of the landmark health care arguments that begin today.

Calls for cameras in the court, of course, are nothing new. C-SPAN has been pushing since 1988 to get access, picking up along the way prominent Senators and countless commentators to rally for the cause. In the past week alone a couple more columns have been added to the pile.

Video broadcasts, however, are not only for those who wish to witness history in real time. They are also for those who want to trace history forward to the present.

After all, it's not like cameras are a new thing.

When he was a boy, retired Justice John Paul Stevens, who turns 92 next month, was in the stands for the 1932 World Series to see Babe Ruth's make his famously disputed "called shot." The marvels of then-modern technology allow us, eight decades later, to see and judge the moment for ourselves.

Not so for the Court's most storied moments.

The election of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, coming only weeks after Ruth's called shot, triggered a decade-long constitutional revolution at the Court over the nature of Congressional power that is now at the core of the health care cases this week. Think how richer our current national debate over federal power would be if all Americans -- not just those who have waited in the rain for three days -- were able to witness -- not read, not hear, but witness -- those battles in their unfiltered forms.

Imagine if all Americans could watch video of Thurgood Marshall arguing Brown v. Board of Education, Sandra Day O'Connor taking her seat in 1981 as the first female justice, or the lawyers and Justices' weary wrangling and debating during the whirlwind days of Bush v. Gore.

The Court denies virtually all Americans the experience of participating in the immeasurable impact these very human moments can have on American civic society. Instead, the Justices look down from their chambers windows as rich people pay others to wait in line, and ordinary people camp out for their own seats -- all to be among the few to observe history in the making.

 
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