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Opinion: Cameras in Supreme Court would lift shroud of secrecy

Exterior of U.S. Supreme Court
(FILES) This file photo taken on August 01, 2015 shows the US Supreme Court is seen August 1, 2015 in Washington, DC.
The US Supreme Court hears its most important abortion case in decades on Wednesday, with all eyes on the critical swing vote of Justice Anthony Kennedy. The case has huge implications on this hot-button issue that could determine the availability of abortion services across the country, just as a highly polarized American electorate goes to the polls in this election year.
/ AFP / KAREN BLEIERKAREN BLEIER/AFP/Getty Images

We were pleased, but not surprised, to learn this week that the Illinois Supreme Court declared its four-year pilot program allowing media cameras into courtrooms around the state a success. As national leaders on this issue, we have been pushing the U.S. Supreme Court to allow video and live-audio, improving transparency and justice for all.

It may come as a surprise to some, but the Supreme Court still prohibits live television or audio broadcast of its hearings, though three-quarters of Americans support cameras in the courtroom, according to a Coalition for Court Transparency poll. In these polarizing times, it’s nearly impossible for three-fourths of Americans to agree on anything. That’s why it’s so hard to understand why the court refuses to make live audio and video available despite the nation’s desire for greater access to cases that deeply impact all Americans.

Every case before the nation’s highest court deserves to be heard by interested Americans in real time. In the last term, the Court heard cases on marriage equality, health care subsidies, and housing discrimination.

The problem isn’t a lack of technology, the Court has demonstrated they have the ability to use live-audio streams in the building and in some special cases, they have allowed the distribution of same-day audio. That’s a woefully inadequate concession.

We don’t know how the justices decide which cases merit increased transparency, but the truth is each case before the Supreme Court is important — and Americans deserve to see their government at work every time the Court convenes.

Supreme Court Justice Brandeis said, “Sunlight is… the best of disinfectants.” And we couldn’t agree more. Transparency provides accountability and strengthens public trust in government. As members of Congress, we know every bill we debate is televised live on C-SPAN and archived for future generations.

That’s why, as proponents for increased openness and accountability, we won’t settle for hours-delayed audio of selective cases as an acceptable standard of transparency for the Court. Our bipartisan, bicameral Cameras in the Courtroom Act would require television coverage of all open sessions of the Court, unless the Court decides, by a majority vote of the Justices, that doing so would constitute a violation of the due process rights of one or more of the parties before the Court.

Increasing transparency and accountability in government is not only the key to improving public trust, it’s the key to improving the way government functions. The American people are best served when all three branches of government are transparent and accessible, that’s why it is time to peel back the layer of secrecy that still shrouds the U.S. Supreme Court and allow cameras in the courtroom.

Dick Durbin, a Democrat, is the senior U.S. Senator from Illinois. Mike Quigley, a Chicago Democrat, represents Illinois’ 5th Congressional District.