Audiotape isn’t good enough

By Walt Braun

The U.S. Supreme Court last week announced that it would allow audiotapes of this week’s arguments about the Obama administration’s health care law to be aired almost immediately after the arguments are finished.

That’s better than nothing, but it isn’t good enough. If Americans are permitted to listen to the arguments shortly after they conclude, why can they not watch the proceedings live?

There is no shortage of interest in this case, the result of challenges by a majority of the states and the National Federation of Independent Business against the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. They want the law declared unconstitutional. They contend, in part, that the law violates the U.S. Constitution by requiring all individuals to have health insurance. Those who cannot afford insurance could qualify for government programs; those who can afford it but refuse will be subject to penalties that opponents liken to a tax.

Whichever way the court rules is likely to have long-term effects on health care financing as well as a more immediate impact on the presidential election. Rare is the Republican candidate at any level who does not want the law repealed in its entirety even if justices deem it constitutional. Justices are expected to issue their ruling early this summer.

The case for transparency at the highest level of our judicial system is obvious and compelling. Citizens should be able to observe proceedings such as this, which the justices acknowledge is important by the fact that they’ve scheduled six hours of arguments over three days.

The usual arguments against allowing such hearings to be televised live don’t hold up. The most common one is that attorneys might play to the cameras — grandstand. In state courts that allow TV cameras, however, that has not been a problem.

In fact, not only would the presence of cameras not undermine the integrity of the proceedings, it could help enlighten Americans about the way the justices, about whom most Americans know very little, conduct themselves on the bench.

Americans should not be content with belated audiotapes of hearings in cases of this magnitude. Bills requiring the Supreme Court to allow cameras have been debated in Senate committees; those are useful steps that can lead to change. It shouldn’t take a law, however, to drag the Supreme Court into the 21st century and open up to more Americans than can squeeze into its chambers.

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