To be or not to be on TV: Will The US Supreme Court Just Say No?

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A debate over whether the US Supreme Court should allow oral arguments to be televised is heating up now that the Court granted certiorari to review the constitutionality of “Obamacare” (the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act).  The Court will allow 5 ½ hours for the argument in that case, the longest in decades.  The Court doesn’t allow oral arguments to be televised, though it makes available audio recordings and transcripts of the arguments.

In a letter to Chief Justice Roberts, Brian P. Lamb, Chairman and CEO of C-SPAN, has asked the Court to allow C-SPAN to televise the argument in the health care case.  Lamb wrote, “It is a case which will affect every American’s life, our economy, and will certainly be an issue in the upcoming presidential campaign.  Additionally, a five-and-a-half hour argument begs for camera coverage—interested citizens would be understandably challenged to adequately follow audio-only coverage of an event of this length with all the justices and various counsel participating.” (Really?  Hmmm….)

 Legal reporters, law professors, legislators and others have entered the fray, offering opinions both pro and con.  On the pro side, some argue that the taxpayers pay justices’ salaries, and should be entitled to see them performing their official duties.  Others cite the need for greater openness and transparency in all branches of government.

On the con side, some believe that televising arguments will change the dynamics of oral argument—i.e., the justices and lawyers will be more guarded and worried about how they come across on tv.  Some cite the increasingly viral nature of news “reporting,”and worry that random comments taken out of context will end up on YouTube, thus reducing complicated issues to catchy sound bites. 

Recently, the public  weighed in on the debate. The “pro” side seems to be winning: in a recent Gallup Poll, 72% of American adults surveyed supported televising the argument in the health care case. 

Which side do you come out on? 

Best, Dean Chris Marx

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