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House OKs Cameras in Federal Courts

Only hours after the Senate Judiciary Committee heard testimony on allowing cameras and microphones in federal courts, including the Supreme Court, the House passed a bill that will do just that.

An amendment to the Secure Access to Justice and Court Protection Act (H.R.1751), offered by a bipartisan group of legislators including Steve Chabot (R-Ohio) and John Conyers (D-Mich.), allows cameras in federal appeals and district courts at the discretion of the judge.

Cameras are already allowed in most state courts and in federal appeals courts, though some federal judges apparently are unclear on what they can do.

Under the House bill, jurors and witnesses in district court criminal trials would be able to request that their faces be obscured and it authorizes the Judicial Conference of the U.S. to come up with guidelines that judges can use in, well, judging whether to allow cameras.

That bill now goes to the Senate, where Senators Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) and Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) have introduced their own bills that together would allow similar coverage of the courts.

Stevens held a hearing on the issue yesterday, though not on the specific bills. At that hearing, Barbara Cochran, president of the Radio-Television News Directors Association, and Henry Schlieff of Court TV, came out strongly for cameras in all courts.

While most witnesses at that hearing were in favor of televising appeals courts, there was more resistence to televising criminal trials from lawyers and judges for fear of spooking witnesses or discouraging defendents, like victims of rape and sexual abuse, from going to trial at all for fear of the publicity.

RTNDA praised the passage. The White House did not. According to RTNDA, it released a statement saying: "While the administration understands the public interest in viewing trials, the Administration believes Section 22 has the potential to influence court proceedings unduly and to compromise the security of participants in the judicial process."

The Judicial Conference is also on record opposing the coverage of criminal trials.