By James Vicini
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A U.S. cable TV network and a senior Republican senator asked the Supreme Court Tuesday to allow its first live broadcast when it hears arguments in the legal dispute over President Barack Obama's sweeping healthcare overhaul law.
In a letter to Chief Justice John Roberts, C-SPAN, the cable network that broadcasts federal government proceedings, said live television coverage of the historic arguments in March would best serve the public interest.
In a separate letter, Senator Charles Grassley, the top Republican on the Senate Judiciary committee asked Roberts to provide live audio and video coverage of the proceedings.
"The constitutional questions are landmark. The public has a right to hear and see the legal arguments," Grassley wrote.
"A minimal number of cameras in the courtroom, which could be placed to be barely noticeable to all participants, would provide live coverage of what may be one of the most historic and important arguments of our time," Grassley added.
The requests were made a day after the court announced it would hear arguments and then likely rule by July on the law, a dispute affecting millions of Americans with important legal, political and financial implications.
Most Supreme Court justices in the past have strongly opposed opening arguments up to televised coverage. In September last year, the court decided to make audio recordings of all oral arguments available at the end of each week.
A court spokeswoman had no comment on the requests.
The arguments are due to last 5-1/2 hours, far more than the usual 60 minutes. Lawyers in the case said they expected the arguments to be spread over two days at the end of March.
Brian Lamb, C-SPAN's chairman and chief executive officer, asked in the network's letter that Roberts and the eight justices set aside any misgivings about television in the courtroom and allow cameras for this particular argument.
Lamb said C-SPAN would distribute the broadcast live to all media interested in carrying it.
"It is a case which will affect every American's life, our economy and will certainly be an issue in the upcoming presidential campaign," Lamb wrote. "The court's decision to schedule at least 5-1/2 hours of argument indicated the significance of this case."
The court will hear an appeal by the Obama administration defending the law and urging it be upheld and appeals by 26 states and an independent business group challenging the law as unconstitutional and arguing that it be struck down.
The issue at the heart of the dispute is whether the U.S. Congress overstepped its powers by requiring all Americans to buy health insurance by 2014 or pay a penalty, a provision known as the individual mandate.
The justices also will consider whether the rest of the law can survive if the mandate is struck down; whether Congress improperly coerced the states to expand the Medicaid program that provides healthcare to the poor; and whether challenges to the mandate must wait until after it takes effect in 2014.
(Reporting by James Vicini, Editing by Howard Goller and Paul Simao)