In Our View: Cameras in Courts

McKenna's appearance before high court reminds us about an old argument

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The U.S. Supreme Court only heard arguments last Wednesday on the matter of making petition signatures public, and no ruling is expected for weeks. Still, some comments from the justices indicated a consensus could be forming in support of full disclosure. This news is refreshing and highly encouraging.

But before we analyze those comments, allow us to resurrect an old but related argument about making our judicial system more transparent. It goes something like this: If O.J. Simpson can be televised in court, so should Washington Attorney General Rob McKenna. Admittedly, that’s a stretch, one of the few times you’ll find those two men mentioned in the same sentence, but it’s one way of supporting the argument to televise proceedings before the U.S. Supreme Court. McKenna already has one high court trophy, and his presentation Wednesday reportedly was smooth and effective.

Here’s another argument for televising Supreme Court hearings, made by Washington Policy Center blogger Jason Mercier: “Our state version of C-SPAN, TVW, has been televising state Supreme Court hearings for years. It is past time for the federal courts to be brought into the 21st Century and allow citizens to see firsthand the legal arguments being made that may impact our rights as Americans.” Absolutely!

Momentum in this direction appears to be building. Justice David Souter, who once vowed that television cameras would roll into the Supreme Court “over my dead body,” retired last year. And the Senate Judiciary Committee last week voted to advance legislation that would allow Supreme Court hearings to be televised. Strengthening that recommendation was its bipartisan support. “Television coverage of the Supreme Court is long overdue,” said Sen. Arlen Specter, D-Pa.

It would’ve been great for the public to witness on TV screens McKenna’s argument before the court. The case involves his (and Secretary of State Sam Reed’s) proper belief that the public deserves to know the names of people who signed petitions for last year’s Referendum 71 (which was passed by voters and which upheld legislation extending “all but marriage” rights to domestic partners). As we have editorialized before, anyone who attempts to change state law should be identified, and that’s what petition signers are trying to do. No one — neither politician nor activist — should be allowed to change any law secretly.

Justice Antonin Scalia seemed to agree: “The fact is that running a democracy takes a certain amount of civic courage,” he said Wednesday, “and the First Amendment does not protect you from criticism or even nasty phone calls when you exercise your political rights to legislate or to take part in the legislative process.”

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg pointed out that the pleas for secrecy are weakened by the fact that organizers of petitions often make the names public themselves by selling them to other organizations and using them for fundraising. “So that would be the end of a person’s privacy,” she said, compellingly.

When Chief Justice John Roberts compared signing a petition to voting, McKenna responded that making public the signers of petitions would have no more chilling effect than disclosing campaign contributions or voter registrations, both of which already are properly made public.

It’s good to see more than one justice commenting favorably in response to McKenna’s argument. It’s also encouraging to have The Associated Press and more than 20 other news organizations and media groups advocating full disclosure of petition signers’ names. No one knows for sure how the court will rule, but Wednesday’s hearing appeared to strengthen the public’s right to know.