[WASHINGTON, D.C.] - With numerous high-profile Supreme Court opinions likely to be announced in the coming weeks, Assistant Majority Leader Dick Durbin (D-IL) wrote to Chief Justice John Roberts today urging him to provide live audio of the Court’s public proceedings. Durbin applauded the Court’s recent decision to release same-day transcripts and end-of-the-week audio of oral arguments and opinion announcements, but asked for additional steps to be taken to increase the public’s access to all open sessions. Public scrutiny of Supreme Court proceedings will produce greater accountability, transparency, and understanding of our judicial system.
“People of reasonable minds may disagree on the proper outcome of any given case, but we can all agree that the American public is well served when all three branches of government are accessible and transparent. The opportunity to receive real-time access to audio from all public proceedings of the Supreme Court would greatly expand the Court’s accessibility to average Americans,” Durbin wrote. “It is not unreasonable for the American people to have an opportunity to hear firsthand the arguments and opinions that will shape their society for years to come.”
Durbin also wrote to request that the Supreme Court provide live video broadcasts of its proceedings. Last Congress, Durbin introduced the Cameras in the Courtroom Act of 2011, which was passed out of the Judiciary Committee on a bipartisan vote, and which would require television coverage of all open sessions of the Court, unless the Court decides, by a vote of the majority of justices, that doing so would constitute a violation of the due process rights of one or more of the parties before the Court. The Cameras in the Courtroom Act only applies to open sessions of the Supreme Court – sessions where members of the public are already invited to observe in person. A similar bill was also approved by a bipartisan majority of the Judiciary Committee during the 111th Congress.
[Text of the letter below]
Dear Chief Justice Roberts,
I write to urge the Court to provide the American public with access to live audio for all of its arguments and opinion announcements, beginning in the final week of the current Term.
People of reasonable minds may disagree on the proper outcome of any given case, but we can all agree that the American public is well served when all three branches of government are accessible and transparent. The opportunity to receive real-time access to audio from all public proceedings of the Supreme Court would greatly expand the Court’s accessibility to average Americans. The enhanced transparency that would come from live audio broadcasts of public proceedings would allow the public to more closely track the many important cases that the Court decides. This year those issues range from patent law to marriage equality, bankruptcy to voting rights, and antitrust to affirmative action.
The recent high-profile arguments on marriage equality illustrate the obstacles awaiting any member of the general public interested in gaining live access to the Court. Some people started lining up five days early. Others reportedly paid up to $6,000 for line-sitters. Everyone else –including those unable to travel to Washington, D.C. – was relegated to the snippets of news leaking from the courtroom during the Court’s proceedings and forced to wait until the afternoon to listen to the arguments in their entirety. At the same time, members of the exclusive Supreme Court Bar were able to show up to the Court shortly before each argument, secure seating in a comfortable lounge, and enjoy a live audio feed of the Court’s proceedings.
I applaud the Court’s recent efforts to increase transparency by releasing same-day transcripts and end-of-the-week audio. Continuing to delay the release of audio in the vast majority of cases, however, does not serve the Court’s interests or the interests of the American public. Furthermore, when the Court has declined to offer same-day audio for some of the other high-profile cases this Term, it has sent the message – intended or not – that the constituencies invested in those cases are not as valued as other constituencies.
For example, although there were high levels of public interest in Shelby County v. Holder and Fisher v. University of Texas, the American public was forced to wait until the Friday after oral argument to listen to audio from these proceedings. By granting same-day audio in some cases, but not others, the Court leaves the impression that certain issues (like marriage equality and health care) are more important than others (like voting rights and affirmative action). All of these issues are important and every American deserves to have the same level of access to Court’s public proceedings.
I continue to believe that the Court should permit live video broadcasts and I will reintroduce bipartisan legislation to make that happen. There are some who oppose putting cameras in the Supreme Court. That is a debate I welcome. There is, however, no legitimate reason for the Court not to immediately permit live audio broadcasts of its proceedings. An elite subset of the legal profession already benefits from live audio broadcasts of the Court’s proceedings, while the rest of Americans typically must wait until the end of the week for the same audio. It’s time for that to change.
In the next two weeks, the Court will announce opinions in some of the most closely watched cases in a generation. The Court’s opinions in these cases will impact millions of individuals and the collective fabric of American life. Accordingly, it is not unreasonable for the American people to have an opportunity to hear firsthand the arguments and opinions that will shape their society for years to come.
Thank you for your consideration of this request.
Richard J. Durbin
United State Senator