Skip to main content

Lens cap stays for now

Legislation that would allow cameras in federal courtrooms, including the Supreme Court, is unlikely to become law this year.

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) does not support the bill, sponsored by Sens. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) and Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), making it unlikely the bill will be approved by Hatch's committee. Hatch agrees with the U.S. Judicial Conference, a policy-making body for the federal courts composed of federal and district judges, which also opposes the bill.

If Hatch blocks the bill from going through his committee, it could still become law if a senator successfully appends it to another bill. Similar legislation passed the House last May and has been referred to the Senate as part of the Federal Courts Improvement Act of 2000. The Senate could also pass that bill, or move Grassley and Schumer's stand-alone bill.

But passing any legislation other than the 13 annual spending bills is going to be tough while Congress is engaged in election-year politics. Republicans have only slim majorities in both Houses and politicians are running home each weekend to campaign, either for themselves or colleagues.

Schumer's enthusiasm for cameras in federal courts comes from his days in the House of Representatives. He and Rep. Steve Chabot (R-Ohio) sponsored the language that eventually became part of the larger House bill.

Hatch and the U.S. Judicial Conference share that concern. Edward Becker, chief judge of the 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals, told a hearing of the Senate Subcommittee on Administrative Oversight and the Courts last week that "we must ensure that no level of unfairness creeps into federal proceedings."

Becker said cameras would be "intimidating" for witnesses; would "interfere with a citizen's right to a fair trial"; would "almost certainly become a potent negotiating tactic"; would create security and privacy concerns; and would not "significantly further public education and understanding of court processes."

Even though opposition is strong, many senators support the idea. "Public proceedings in the 21st century necessarily mean televised proceedings," Nancy Gertner, a U.S. District Court judge in Massachusetts and former trial lawyer, told the panel. "Television is the means by which most people get their news."

Some senators also want oral arguments at the U.S. Supreme Court to be televised. Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) said he plans to introduce legislation specifically focused on allowing cameras into the Supreme Court.

That would be a significant change for the highest court in the land. Right now, no recording devices are allowed and the justices cannot be taped or photographed.