For those who appreciate important trials dealing with fundamental principles, it doesn't get much better than the drama unfolding in federal court in San Francisco. The principle in question is whether a citizen's "pursuit of happiness," reflected in the desire to marry the person he or she loves, can be denied by government on the sole grounds that the citizen shares the same gender as the intended spouse.

For those who appreciate important trials dealing with fundamental principles, it doesn't get much better than the drama unfolding in federal court in San Francisco.


The principle in question is whether a citizen's "pursuit of happiness," reflected in the desire to marry the person he or she loves, can be denied by government on the sole grounds that the citizen shares the same gender as the intended spouse. It is raised in a challenge to California's Proposition 8, approved by voters in 2008, which states that "only marriage between a man and a woman is valid or recognized in California."


Representing the plaintiffs is an odd couple of the nation's most esteemed litigators: Theodore Olsen, the conservative who represented George W. Bush in the 2000 lawsuit that made him president, and David Boies, the liberal who argued that case on behalf of Al Gore.


Friends as well as sometime adversaries, Olsen and Boies teamed up to challenge Proposition 8, Olsen wrote in Newsweek, because "Legalizing same-sex marriage would ... be a recognition of basic American principles, and would represent the culmination of our nation's commitment to equal rights. It is, some have said, the last major civil-rights milestone yet to be surpassed in our two-century struggle to attain the goals we set for this nation at its formation."


Millions of gay and lesbian Americans have a direct stake in this issue. For millions more - their friends and families - it is a personal issue. Passions are heated on the other side as well, as we know well here in Massachusetts, the first state to legalize same-sex marriage. The legal principles involved in the California case the right of states to define rights in different ways, the ability of voters, by initiative process, to circumscribe civil rights extend the importance of this case beyond the question of same-sex marriage.


For all these reasons, interest in the case is high. In recognition of the opportunity to engage the citizenry in the workings of the judicial system, the judge in the case came up with a plan to post video of the proceedings up on YouTube.


But while trials in state courts are routinely televised, the federal judiciary has long resisted making its public hearings accessible to anyone outside the courtroom. So when Proposition 8's supporters appealed the judge's order, arguing that its witnesses might be intimidated, the YouTube plan was shot down.


Since both sides expect the case will eventually find its way to the Supreme Court, it is disappointing that the justices rejected the proposal. The high court has long refused to let its hearings be televised. In testimony to Congress in 1996, Justice David Souter vowed that "The day you see a camera roll into our courtroom it's going to roll over my dead body."


Souter isn't dead, but he has retired from the court. His replacement, Justice Sonia Sotomayor, sided with the minority, but the plan to videotape the California trial still failed on a 5-4 vote.


That's unfortunate. Supreme Court justices regularly complain that Americans don't know enough about the Constitution and the judiciary. There is much at stake - and much to learn - in the trial of Proposition 8. It's time the justices let the cameras into the federal courts.


The MetroWest Daily News