Health care ruling should be on TV

After answering the question of what to do about the economy, the future of health care reform portends to be the hottest issue of the 2012 presidential campaign.

That became clear by the acute attention paid to it during the Republican primary, as Mitt Romney’s adversaries pummeled him for creating a Massachusetts version of “Obamacare.”

This week’s anticipated U.S. Supreme Court ruling on the constitutionality of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, the hallmark of President Barack Obama’s first term, will further inflame the debate regardless of its outcome.

There are several ways the court could rule. It could accept the law in total; it could cherry-pick provisions to throw out; it could reject the whole thing in total; or it could kick the decision down the road on the grounds it must wait until the first penalties are assessed in 2015. The court might even do a combo pack – keep some parts, throw out some other parts and save the rest for later.

Whatever the decision’s final permutations, one would be hard-pressed to cite another ruling in recent history that stands to affect so many millions of Americans in so many ways and perhaps influence the nation’s political direction for at least the next four years.

All this contributes considerable weight to the argument that the court’s ruling should be televised for the nation to witness live. Public interest in the decision trumps any of the court’s previous justifications for being camera shy.

While we favor cameras in court whenever possible, we recognize there are limited instances when they can become a distraction and even subvert the judicial process – as evidenced by the O.J. Simpson trial.

But this certainly isn’t one of them. The case has been argued. The ruling has been made. What awaits is only the final declaration.

To accommodate television, the court may have to alter its traditional way of issuing opinions by expanding its public discourse. Usually, the justice who writes the majority opinion reads an excerpt, and the court moves rather expediently down its agenda. Once in a while, dissenting justices feel the need to speak their piece as well.

For the health care ruling, it would be reasonable for each judge writing an opinion to read extended passages, outlining the key elements of their reasoning.

This limited intrusion on the court’s image-management protocol would reap immeasurable public benefit. The opportunity for people to see and hear the justices express their viewpoints in their own words would provide important insights into the court’s decision-making process.

Indeed, it is exactly because health care reform is such an important issue that the court has an obligation to be as open as possible on how it reaches its conclusions. While the court rejected requests to televise oral arguments, the substance of the final opinions could very well become touchpoints in the presidential election.

Therefore, it’s vital for Americans to have access to the opinions in ways that will facilitate their understanding of the logic employed by the justices. Televising the ruling would help that cause, not hurt it.