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Congressman Mike Quigley

Representing the 5th District of Illinois

Chicago Sun-Times: Let’s Hear What High Court Has to Say

May 22, 2014

The following article was published in the Chicago Sun-Times on May 22, 2014. A link to the post can be found here.

By Rep. Mike Quigley

Whether you are in Washington or Chicago, you can watch Congress and the executive branch in action on C-SPAN. It is an important part of making our nation’s legislative and executive business open and transparent. But one government institution remains almost completely shut off from the public eye — the U.S. Supreme Court. Unless, of course, you have the time and money to travel to Washington and wait in line for hours to be one of the few members of the public allowed inside.

Since the beginning of the TV era, the Supreme Court’s decisions on major cases from Brown v. Board of Education to Bush v. Gore have significantly shaped American society and changed history. It is a devastating educational and historical loss that we have no video recordings of these important moments. It’s time the court end its antiquated practice of banning video cameras and live audio recordings of oral arguments and use every tool available to preserve America’s judicial history.

While a majority of Americans — 71 percent according to a May Democracy Corps poll — want video cameras in the Supreme Court, the justices have been outspoken in their opposition to videotaping the 75 to 80 cases they hear each year. In fact, nearly all the justices supported cameras in the court during their Senate confirmation hearings, but curiously switched positions after ascending to the bench.

If the justices are reluctant to bring video cameras into the court, then they should consider a reasonable alternative to allow all Americans the opportunity to follow these important cases in real time — live audio recordings.

In March, I introduced the Transparency in Government Act, which includes a provision requiring the Supreme Court to live-stream audio of its proceedings. While not an ideal solution, it is a step in the right direction. The Court already audio records its proceedings, but recordings are not publicly available until the end of the week.

The justices have expressed concern that television and radio reporters could take “snippets” of recordings and use them in their stories without proper context. But the truth is reporters can already do that once the audio recordings are released, and print reporters have been quoting transcripts that are available the day of a hearing for years.

Recently, Justice Stephen Breyer said at an event in Washington that he was open to a change in audio policy.

“And the radio?” Breyer quipped, referring to a question from the Coalition for Court Transparency on live-streaming court proceedings. “Fine. I mean, they tried it in the D.C. Circuit. It didn’t hurt anything.”

“Could we experiment with that?” Breyer added. “Maybe.”

That’s a great start. Now, it’s time to get “maybe” to “yes.”

In the 100 years since another justice, Louis Brandeis, argued that “sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants,” advances in technology have given us new tools to shine a light on the most isolated government institution. Now it is only a question of when the Supreme Court will make an effort to bring more transparency to their proceedings. Taking just a small step to increase access to the Court by live-streaming audio recordings — as a bridge to video — would go a long way toward restoring Americans’ faith in our government.

Mike Quigley, a Democrat, has represented Illinois’ 5th Congressional District since 2009.