Judiciary Considers Court Cameras

There was general support in a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing Wednesday for allowing cameras in the Supreme Court, and more broadly in federal appeals courts, but there was more Resistance to allowing them in federal criminal trials.

The hearing, presided over by Senator Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), took testimony from representatives of the industry, trail attorneys, judges and academics and was prompted by bills that would allow coverage of federal criminal trials and Supreme Court oral argument, under the discretion of the judges.

TV is already allowed in federal appeals courts, though the bill would make that expressly clear in case there was any confusion among individual judges about allowing them.

Specter wants cameras in the Supreme Court in part to give the American public a look at what he called its "inexplicable, iron hand," arguing that it would give, if not the public, maybe the Judiciary committee a better idea of how the court was arriving at its rulings.

Joining Specter in supporting cameras in appellate and criminal courts, though not in his characterization of the high court, were Senators Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), and Charles Grassley (R-Iowa). Only Republican Jeff Sessions of Alabama expressed strong reservations at the hearing.

Sessions framed his opposition as levels of detriment, the least being coverage of the Supreme Court, the most coverage of trial courts, saying "rials are crucibles for truth, not entertainment."

Among the numerous witnesses, Barbara Bergman, representing the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, registered the strongest opposition to cameras, arguing that they can affect witnesses' willingness to testify, or even defendents desire to go to trial, particuarly if sensitive information will be made widely public. Bergman said lawyers were generally supportive of cameras in the Supreme and Circuit courts.

She also said that if the Sunshine in the Courtroom Act did pass, it should be modified to give all parties--that would include defense and prosecuting attorneys--a veto on cameras in trial courts, rather than leaving it to the judge's discretion. "We support sunshine," she said, "but it should not eclipse the basic guarantee of fairness."

Also opposing coverage of federal criminal trials was Judge Diarmuid O’Scannlain, of the Ninth circuit Court of Appeals. While he supports coverage of his own court, where he says he has allowed 35 trials to be televised, on behalf of the Federal Judicial Conference he opposed coverage of trial courts, saying the main difference was the presence of juries, witnesses, and victims.

Strongly defending cameras in all courts were Barbara Cochran, president of the Radio-Television News Directors' Association and Court TV Chairman Henry Schlieff.

Schleff said that cameras enhance public scrutiny, promote public confidence in the system, and increase knowledge of the functions of the judiciary. Because TV is the prime news medium, he argued, it follows that it should be used to inform and educate. It is, he said, the way to make public trials "truly public."

Bergman argued that trials are already public, and that the question of allowing TV is one of making them "more public," which has to be balanced against the possiblity that they will affect, not simply record, the outcome.

Cochran told the Senators that the public should not be basing its view of the legal system from the latest episode of Judge Judy or CSI, and that access should not be limited by the number of observers who can fit in a court room.

She pointed out that cameras are now small and unobtrusive, and that the experience of state trial courts, most of which have been open to cameras for years, includes coverage of hundreds of verdicts without a single one being overturned because of the presence of cameras. 

C-SPAN founder Brain Lamb pledged to cover Supreme Court oral arguments in their entirety, but said he did not support a ban on excerpts, which Specter called "snippets," saying there should be no difference between the print and electronic access.

Cochran agreed, pointing out that print reporters are free to use selective quotes, and that at least with TV coverage, the quotes would be from the horse's mouth, as it were, rather than second hand, meaning they would be more accurate.Specter's bill opening the Supreme Court to cameras is new,  but the Sunshine in the Courtroom Act, co-sponsored by Grassley, has been around for several years, failing to pass in 1999, 2001, and 2003.

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.