The Senate Judiciary Committee approved a pair of bills Thursday that would dramatically expand video coverage of federal court trials and other proceedings while putting Supreme Court arguments on camera for the first time.

Both bills have bipartisan support, including the endorsement of the panel’s chair, Sen. Richard Durbin (D-Ill.), and the longstanding backing of the committee’s ranking Republican, Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa.

It’s the first time such legislation has cleared the Senate committee in more than a decade, according to Fix the Court, a group advocating for more transparency in the judicial system.

During debate on the bills Thursday, some senators discussed concerns about cameras in the courtroom dating back to the O.J. Simpson trial in the 1990s. Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) said public access to live TV feed of the recent criminal trial of Minneapolis Police officer Derek Chauvin for the murder of George Floyd demonstrated the benefit and importance of allowing such access.

“I felt that was a moment of redemption,” said Klobuchar, a former prosecutor. “It was a moment of redemption in part because people could see their fellow citizens talk about what happened … If that hadn’t been televised, the verdict could probably have been the same, but people wouldn’t have been able to see that.”

However, several GOP senators opposed the transparency bills or sought to water them down.

“I think these measures are well intended, but they’re ill-advised,” Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.). “More sunlight, more transparency in government is usually a good thing, but I don’t think it’s particularly lacking in our court system right now.”

Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), a former Supreme Court litigator, warned that allowing TV broadcast of arguments there would lead to showboating by lawyers and justices.

“I have no doubt if there were TV cameras at oral argument, you would see the lawyers for both side behaving differently and playing to them and, unfortunately, you would see justices behaving differently and playing to the cameras,” Cruz said. “I think it is better for our country if the Supreme Court is a little more boring and doesn’t have Judge Judy as the dynamic in the courtroom.”

Cruz said all senators know that their discussions are vastly different when on-camera versus when they’re behind closed doors.

“Every single one of us behaves dramatically differently when that C-SPAN camera is on than when we’re in a classified briefing,” the Texas Republican said.

Cruz said he favored same-day access to audio of arguments in appellate courts. He did not note that many federal appeals courts already provided that before the pandemic or that the 9th Circuit feeds out live video of virtually all appeal arguments.

Few, if any, of the senators appeared to have a clear grip on how the pandemic has affected electronic access to the federal courts.

For more than a year, due to the coronavirus outbreak, the Supreme Court has provided live audio access to arguments in lieu of in-person access.

In addition, under special authority granted by Congress last year in the CARES Act, federal courts have been holding many hearings in criminal cases by video conference or teleconference. Members of the public and the press have typically had access to those hearings by phone or through the internet.

On Wednesday, the head of the federal courts’ administrative office sent Durbin and Grassley a letter opposing the bill to provide ongoing video and audio access to trial and appeals courts. Judge Roslynn Mauskopf said changes to the court’s permanent rules should go through a process for notice and comment, rather than be imposed by Congress.

“While the Judicial Conference is opposed to this legislation for the reasons stated above, the Judiciary has learned a great deal about the benefits and risks of providing audio and video access during emergency situations, and is endeavoring to determine whether, and under what circumstances, conferencing platforms and real-time audio could be used in the district courts,” Mauskopf wrote.

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