Court Cameras Pushed in Hill Hearing

We trust federal judges to make decisions that affect life, liberty and property, but we don't trust them to be able to decide whether to allow cameras in their courtroom.

That point was made by attorney, veteran legal reporter and Court TV senior editor Fred Graham in a hearing in the House Judiciary Committee on the Sunshine in the Courtroom Act.

The bill, which is making its third trip through the committee, would give Federal Appellate Court and Criminal Court judges the discretion to allow cameras in their courts.

Currently, Federal Appeals Courts have the discretion to allow coverage -- two circuits currently permit TV cameras -- but individual judges do not have the discretion, and no coverage of federal criminal trials is allowed. By contrast, all state courts allow some kind of TV coverage.

Acting committee chairman Rep. William Delahunt (D-Mass.) echoed Graham's point in arguing that judges should be allowed to permit televised coverage.

Joining Delahunt and the bill's co-sponsor in pushing for judicial discretion were C-SPAN president Susan Swain; Radio-Television News Directors Association president Barbara Cochran; and a federal judge, Nancy Gertner of Massachusetts.

They argued that cameras are an electronic extension of the "public" in the constitutional guarantee of a public trial, would shed light on the sometimes mystical decision-making processes and have been residing in state courts for two decades without materially affecting the outcomes of those trials.

"Greater transparency helps to enhance public trust and confidence," Delahunt said, while Graham pointed out that Court TV has covered more than 900 hours and its experience was that cameras did not have a deleterious effect on the trials.

Gertner said that given the rise in technology, the question should not be whether to allow cameras, but how to allow them. The bill, for example, would give judges discretion to allow or disallow coverage, with one of the bill's backers -- Rep. Artur Davis (D-Ala.), a former federal prosecutor -- arguing that most judges probably wouldn't allow them in most cases anyway, but that in seminal cases, such as at Timothy McVeigh's trial, the public should be able to see them.

Gertner said a key issue is the definition of "public" in public trial. She added that "public means television," and it means screen time. To the criticism that cameras could be a security issue for judges or others in the case, she pointed out that her picture and rulings are already on the Internet.

Arguing the other side were Judge John Tunheim, speaking for the Judicial Conference, whose rules currently prohibit judicial discretion over cameras, and U.S. Attorney John Richter. They argued that the potential for affecting the fairness of a trial -- grandstanding or affecting juries or witnesses, for example -- outweighed the benefits of widening the public's view.

Rep. Steve Chabot (R-Ohio), one of the bill's co-sponsors, said he was not sure this version would make it to law in this Congress, but cameras would eventually make it into federal courts, including the Supreme Court.

John Eggerton

Contributing editor John Eggerton has been an editor and/or writer on media regulation, legislation and policy for over four decades, including covering the FCC, FTC, Congress, the major media trade associations, and the federal courts. In addition to Multichannel News and Broadcasting + Cable, his work has appeared in Radio World, TV Technology, TV Fax, This Week in Consumer Electronics, Variety and the Encyclopedia Britannica.