Originally published: November 29, 2011
Last updated: December 21, 2011 - 4:27pm
A couple of weeks ago, the Supreme Court agreed to hear a constitutional challenge to President Obama’s health care law. The case is a once-in-a-generation blockbuster, and the court underscored its importance by scheduling five and a half hours of oral arguments, the most in any case since 1966. The day after the announcement, Brian P. Lamb, the chairman of C-Span, wrote to Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. with a modest request. “We believe the public interest is best served by live television coverage of this particular oral argument,” Lamb said.
The request is, of course, doomed. Yet it is hard to say why. The Supreme Courts of Canada and the United Kingdom allow cameras. What the public sees in those countries, and what it would see here, is something not always prominent in the elected branches of our government: able public servants with a complete mastery of difficult materials grappling seriously with matters of surpassing consequence. It probably inspires confidence. It certainly dispels ignorance. Justice Elena Kagan, the member of the court who has been most outspoken about the value of television coverage, recently recalled what it was like to see Supreme Court arguments before she joined the court. “Everybody was so prepared, so smart, so obviously deeply concerned about getting to the right answer,” she said at the Aspen Institute in August. “I thought if everybody could see this, it would make people feel so good about this branch of government and how it’s operating. And I thought it’s such a shame actually that only 200 people a day can get to see it.” There will probably be just 50 seats available to the public at the arguments in the health care case. People hoping for a shot at one of them will probably wait in line in the cold for two nights or longer. Forcing citizens to endure that sort of hardship for a chance to see their government at work would seem to require a substantial justification.
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