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No embedsat the high court

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We can watch the war in real time, but we can't witness oral arguments

The Washington Post

The military is bringing reporters ' with television cameras ' along on combat operations, but the Supreme Court remains off-limits. This week the justices considered the fate of affirmative action in universities, and they made what they must deem a major concession to the public's interest in this enormously important case: The court released an audiotape of the oral arguments shortly after they took place. The two-hour session was then broadcast on C-SPAN (with accompanying photographs of the justices and counsel) and remains just a few mouse clicks away for those who want to listen. Usually the court does not make such tapes public for months and waits weeks to put transcripts on the Internet ' transcripts that even then do not identify which justices asked which questions. The result is that citizens not present for arguments can't know precisely what happened. While press coverage of the Supreme Court often is excellent, it is not a substitute for watching ' or at least listening to ' an argument.

Oral arguments in federal appeals courts are among the most educational and majestic events of American government ' a real-world application of the rule of law. This week's baby steps toward greater openness represented just the second time the justices allowed such transmission; the first was the oral argument in Bush vs. Gore. Few cases before the high court will draw the same degree of attention as those two matters. Yet there is no reason that such access should not be provided as a matter of course in all arguments. Some justices have cited concerns about the intrusive effects of cameras as grounds for keeping television out of the courtroom. We think such concerns are ill-founded. But given that audio has been released successfully in two of the highest-profile cases in recent years, there seems to be no downside to providing audio in all cases ' and great benefit in making the business of the nation's high court more accessible to those who are interested. There's no reason why the citizenry ' the same citizenry that now can watch its military fight wars and its Congress write laws ' must be kept at arm's length by the court.