By James Vicini
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Televising U.S. Supreme Court proceedings would benefit the public, some said at a Senate hearing on Tuesday, while others called the idea possibly unconstitutional and a potentially harmful influence.
The question of putting cameras in America's highest court, a long-standing debate, took a new twist recently with requests to televise next year's Supreme Court arguments on President Barack Obama's sweeping healthcare overhaul law.
Supporters of legislation in Congress to require televising Supreme Court proceedings said it would enhance accountability, transparency and public understanding of the judicial system.
Opponents said it would only tempt attorneys to play to the cameras, allow video clips to be taken out of context, and possibly mislead the public. No matter the risks, they said, the high court, not Congress, should make the decision.
The Senate Judiciary subcommittee's hearing followed last month's requests by U.S. cable television network C-SPAN and others seeking the first live broadcast when the court hears 5-1/2 hours of arguments in late March on the healthcare law.
Senator Charles Grassley, the top committee Republican, told the hearing he wrote last month to Chief Justice John Roberts asking that cameras be allowed for the healthcare arguments.
"This upcoming case is the perfect example for why the Supreme Court should televise its proceedings," he said. "All of us deserve to see and hear the legal arguments in a case which will have a lasting effect on every single American."
A court spokeswoman has declined comment on the request in the healthcare case. Nearly all Supreme Court justices in the past strongly opposed opening arguments up to television and the court seems unlikely to grant the request.
The hearing came the day after Grassley and four other senators introduced legislation to require the televising of Supreme Court proceedings.
A hearing witness and backer of the legislation, former Senator Arlen Specter, said he has pushed for cameras in the courtroom for 25 years. He said polls show the American people support it and that high courts in other countries televise proceedings.
Chief Judge Anthony Scirica of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit said the Supreme Court has become more accessible, making available briefs, opinions, transcripts and audio recordings of arguments.
Attorney Maureen Mahoney, who argues before the court, said the legislation could violate the separation of powers between various branches of government and be an unconstitutional stripping of the court's power to control its own proceedings.
Another lawyer who argues before the court, Thomas Goldstein, said the legislation probably would pass constitutional muster. But he said it would be better if the Senate adopted a resolution urging the court to act.
The last witness, Iowa Supreme Court Chief Justice Mark Cady, said his court has put all its oral arguments live online since 2006, has had no problems and that no one even notices the camera.
(Reporting by James Vicini; Editing by Kevin Drawbaugh and Bill Trott)