Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Court to release detainee case recordings early

By Joan Biskupic, USA TODAY

WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court announced Tuesday that it will immediately release audio recordings of oral arguments in next week's Guantanamo detainee cases. The action Dec. 5 will mark the 17th time the media-shy court has released audio of arguments right after the end of the session in the red upholstered and white marble courtroom.

Long-standing policy at the enclave, where cameras, tape recorders and cellphones are barred, dictates that audio recordings are released at the end of each annual term to the National Archives. The first exceptions came in December 2000, when the court permitted the same-day release of recordings in two Florida cases involving the disputed presidential election.

No video recordings have ever been made.

Since 2000, the court has allowed early release of arguments over abortion, campaign financing, school integration and other incendiary subjects. C-SPAN and other radio and TV networks air the hour-long sessions, or excerpts. On TV, photographs of the justices typically are shown as the recording plays.

In next week's consolidated Guantanamo cases, people will be able to hear the questions and answers of the nine justices as well as Seth Waxman, representing the detainees, and U.S. Solicitor General Paul Clement, representing the federal government. The dispute, one of the most important to come to the justices in the post-9/11 era, tests whether foreign prisoners at the U.S. naval base in Cuba have a right to challenge their detention before federal judges.

In light of constant television coverage of Congress and the president and today's 24/7 media atmosphere, the court's policy of no cameras and rare audio releases has become increasingly contentious. Bills pending in Congress, sponsored by key members of the House and Senate Judiciary Committees, would permit the televising of Supreme Court proceedings.

Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, a sponsor, applauded the announcement Tuesday, saying a "step to a more accountable and transparent judiciary is … more access to what occurs in America's courts."

Individual justices have urged Congress not to pass a law allowing cameras at the court. This year, Justice Anthony Kennedy told a Senate panel, "The majority on my court feel very strongly … that televising our proceedings would change our collegial dynamic." Chief Justice John Roberts said in a speech that the justices worry "about the impact of television on the functioning of the institution."

"The court's practice has always been to release audio at the end of the term," court spokeswoman Kathy Arberg said Tuesday. She said exceptions are made when the court believes "heightened public interest" exists. She also said the consideration of an exception is "prompted by requests from at least one, and usually more than one, news organization."

C-SPAN, which asked that the Guantanamo cases be released, has sought same-day audio for 15 cases since Roberts became chief justice in the fall of 2005. Eight of those, including next week's Al Odah v. United States and Boumediene v. Bush, have been granted.

Among the requests rejected this year were those involving federal regulation of election campaign advertising, U.S. criminal sentencing rules and a Texas death penalty case involving a Mexican citizen that tested the president's power.

The factors the justices weigh for "heightened public interest" are not clear, C-SPAN President Susan Swain said.

Although she's pleased with the early release of audio next week, she said, "Audio with pictures is a poor substitute for video in our society. … We're going to continue to hope that someday the court will open up to cameras."

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