Sotomayor: Put high court on TV

WASHINGTON -- During her confirmation hearings before the Senate Judiciary Committee last week, Judge Sonia Sotomayor was careful not to telegraph how she might vote as a Supreme Court justice — except on one issue.

On the question of whether the high court should allow its proceedings to be televised, Sotomayor signaled that she's a thumbs up.

"When there have been options for me to participate with cameras in the courtroom, I have," Sotomayor told the panel. She said she will "relay those positive experiences" to other justices if she is confirmed.

In Washington, the Supreme Court is the only one of the three branches of the federal government where television cameras are not a regular presence.

The comings and goings of President Obama and his White House predecessors have been regularly captured on video for years. The White House press secretary's daily briefings have been available for live TV broadcast since 1995. The House of Representatives has offered gavel-to-gavel coverage via C-SPAN since 1979; the Senate followed suit in 1986.

In a poll of more than 1,000 voters nationwide earlier this month for C-SPAN, 61% said they favored putting the Supreme Court on TV.

Several key congressional players agree.

"I'd like to see the court televised," Sen. Arlen Specter, D-Pa., told Sotomayor during her confirmation hearings. Two other committee Democrats — Herb Kohl and Russ Feingold, both from Wisconsin — expressed the same sentiments.

Feingold is a co-sponsor of a bill by Specter that would require cameras at the Supreme Court. Other Judiciary Committee members who have signed on: Sens. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa; Dick Durbin, D-Ill.; Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., and John Cornyn, R-Texas, a former Texas Supreme Court justice.

Televised proceedings would open up a court now accessible only to those who "are in DC and can wait in line or pay someone to wait in line" for one of about 200 seats available to the public for oral arguments, says Bruce Peabody, a Fairleigh Dickinson University professor who has written about the prospect of cameras in the Supreme Court.

Two of the 13 federal appeals courts allow cameras in the courtroom: the 2nd Circuit in New York, where Sotomayor is currently a judge, and the 9th Circuit in San Francisco. After a brief pilot project spearheaded by then-Chief Justice William Rehnquist in the early 1990s, federal judges banned cameras from trial courts because they might intimidate witnesses or jurors. They left it up to appeals courts to decide for their courtrooms.

If confirmed, Sotomayor would be "unique in coming to the Supreme Court (with) actual experience in having cameras at appellate court hearings," says U.S. District Judge John Tunheim, a Minnesotan who heads the federal judicial conference's committee on court administration.

Sotomayor told Kohl that she could be "the new voice in the discussion" and possibly be a catalyst for "taking new approaches." But she'd clearly have some persuading to do.

The man Sotomayor's been nominated to replace, retired Justice David Souter, told Congress in 1996 that "the day you see a camera come into my courtroom, it's going to roll over my dead body." He's not the only member of the high court who feels that way.

"We have discussed it and discussed it and discussed it," Justice Clarence Thomas told a House Appropriations subcommittee in April when lawmakers asked about the possibility of the court live-streaming arguments on its website. "I think there is some serious disagreement on that."

Cameras in the court would introduce an "insidious dynamic" that might cause justices to start competing for the best sound bites, Justice Anthony Kennedy told the House Appropriations Committee in 2007.

Other justices have been less adamant. Justice Ruth Ginsberg told a Canadian law journal in 2000 that she has no personal objections to TV in the high court and Justice Samuel Alito told the Judiciary Committee at his 2006 confirmation hearing that he argued in vain for the Philadelphia-based 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to televise its proceedings.

"I think the majority was fearful that our Nielsen ratings would be in the negatives," Alito joked, referring to the television rating service.