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Magazine / Q&A

Open Up!

Chuck Grassley wants the public to see what judges do for a living.

Oyez: The Iowa Republican hopes the courts are listening.(Richard A. Bloom)

photo of Margot Sanger-Katz
December 15, 2011

With the intense public interest in the big health care cases headed to the Supreme Court next year, open-government advocates are calling on the Court to televise the scheduled five and a half hours of oral arguments. C-SPAN President Brian Lamb, who has been urging the justices to let his cameras inside for years, made a predictable request. Journalists’ groups and lawmakers from both sides of the aisle have also made pitches.

Among the members of Congress asking the high court to allow broadcast is Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa. Year after year, he has proposed legislation to permit cameras in federal courts, and he has long cosponsored legislation to bring cameras to the Supreme Court. He has made a practice of asking prospective Supreme Court justices about the issue during their confirmation hearings. In an interview, Grassley told National Journal that he has some reason for optimism, citing then-Chief Justice William Rehnquist’s agreement to allow the audio recording of the Court’s arguments in Bush v. Gore. Edited excerpts of the interview follow.

NJ You’ve been sponsoring legislation to encourage cameras in the federal courts for 11 years now. Why do you think it’s important?


GRASSSLEY I have found a great deal of understanding about Congress being enhanced since we put cameras in the Senate, which was during my first term in office. I think it makes government more transparent and more accountable. Why not do it in the judicial branch? There seems to be more mystery about the courts than anything else, so it ought to help with understanding of our court system.

NJ Why have the judges resisted?

GRASSSLEY Maybe they just don’t want that sort of accountability.

NJ What about among lawmakers? Why hasn’t your bill ever passed?

GRASSSLEY We always get it out of committee. It always has bipartisan support, but it also has bipartisan opposition. Prominent Supreme Court justices don’t want to do it. I don’t hear that so much from lower-court judges or Circuit Court judges. Even if senators disagree with the judges who say cameras shouldn’t be in the courtroom, maybe there’s respect for that.

NJ You sent a letter to Chief Justice John Roberts asking him to make an exception to the no-cameras rule for the health care cases. Why should the Court consider it?

GRASSSLEY First of all, this case dealing with the health care reform law is the biggest expansion in government and a precedent for what I would call the misuse of the commerce clause. But [some] people ob-viously feel otherwise. It would end up being the most massive extension of interpretation of the Constitution’s commerce power since the Wickard case of 1942 [which recognized the government’s right to regulate economic activity]. It’s such a big expansion and so precedential in its approach and will have such an impact on the American economy that this ought to be televised.

NJ But it’s the Court’s decision that really matters. Why does the public need to see the arguments?

GRASSSLEY I think the argu-ments are where the educational benefits come in. Seeing how points of view are represented before the Court—that’s more important than the reading of the opinion. I don’t think people can have any impression of how the Supreme Court acts, even if they read about it, unless they go there and see it.

NJ One of the arguments I’ve heard from members of the Court is that broadcast could influence the way they behave. You’ve been in the Senate since before its proceedings were broadcast. Do you think they have a point?

GRASSSLEY I suppose it would have some impact, but I don’t think it would be anything but a positive, overall.

NJ Have you seen arguments at the Supreme Court yourself?


NJ What did you think?

GRASSSLEY I thought it was just a perfect process. In fact, I was reading the transcript yesterday of Hall v. U.S. It’s a tax case, and it involved an amendment I adopted 10 years ago to the bankruptcy code. It reminds me of what I was thinking while I was over there—there’s this constant interruption by a justice of a person that’s trying to answer a question that the justice just asked. It’s kind of like being on O’Reilly or Hannity: They ask a question, and before you get the first word out of
your mouth, they’re giving you an opinion.

NJ Do you think seeing arguments would lead the public to respect the Court more? Or less?

GRASSSLEY More. I don’t know how you can respect something if you don’t know how it works.

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