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September 2000

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This article is in the news archives --- for current news go to the Third Branch News.


Judicial Conference Opposes Bill to Bring Cameras into Courts

A representative of the Judicial Conference told the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Administrative Oversight and the Courts that a bill to allow cameras in courtrooms could "seriously jeopardize" the rights of citizens to receive a fair trial.

Chief Judge Edward R. Becker (3rd Cir.) appeared before the subcommittee this month to express the Judiciary's strong opposition to cameras in the courtroom. The bill, S. 721, would allow media coverage of court proceedings.

"The Judicial Conference in its role as the policy-making body for the federal Judiciary has consistently expressed the view that camera coverage can do irreparable harm to a citizen's right to a fair and impartial trial. We believe that the intimidating effect of cameras on litigants, witnesses, and jurors has a profoundly negative impact on the trial process," Becker said. "Moreover, in civil cases cameras can intimidate civil defendants who, regardless of the merits of their case, might prefer to settle rather than risk damaging accusations in a televised trial."

Senate Judiciary Committee chair, Senator Orrin G. Hatch (R-UT), submitted a statement to the subcommittee in which he agreed that permitting cameras and electronic media in the courtroom could interfere with the federal courts' primary mission of dispensing justice. He also expressed concern about the "widespread distribution" of sensitive personal information about non-parties if S. 721 was enacted. "Importantly," said Hatch, "I believe that the federal judiciary has special expertise in this area and is entitled to a measure of deference."

Testifying before the subcommittee in support of the bill were Judge Nancy Gertner (D. Mass.); Associate Justice Hiller Zobel of Massachusetts; Professor Lynn Dennis Wardle of Brigham Young University; Dave Busiek, news director of KCCI Television in Des Moines, Iowa; and Ronald Goldfarb, an attorney and author.

A Federal Judicial Center study of a three-year Judicial Conference pilot program allowing electronic media coverage of civil proceedings in six district and two appellate courts, found that 64 percent of the participating judges reported that, at least to some extent, cameras make witnesses more nervous than they otherwise would be. In addition, 46 percent of the judges believed that, at least to some extent, cameras make witnesses less willing to appear in court.

Becker also pointed out that as an educational tool for the public, the Judiciary's own community outreach efforts have been more effective than proposed camera coverage in pre-senting basic educational information about the legal system. The Federal Judicial Center report concluded that of 90 news stories analyzed, there was an average of 56 seconds of courtroom footage per story, and most of the footage was voiced over by a reporter's narration. "Television news coverage appears simply to use the courtroom for a backdrop or a visual image for the news story which, like most stories on television," said Becker, "are delivered in short sound bites and not in-depth."

Subcommittee chair, Senator Charles Grassley (R-IA), the sponsor of S. 721 with Senator Charles Schumer (D-NY), said the bill would "make it easier for every American taxpayer to see what goes on in the federal courts that they fund." He held that allowing cameras in the federal courtrooms is consistent with the Founding Fathers' intent that trials be held in front of as many people as choose to attend. Grassley also discounted arguments against cameras in federal courtrooms, saying witnesses' voices and faces could be disguised to ensure their safety, and the legislation would give presiding judges sole discretion to allow cameras. "All we're doing with this legislation," said Grassley, "is allowing a presiding judge to make decisions on how to run his or her courtroom and helping the American people fulfill their right to participate more fully in the judicial process."

The Judiciary has repeatedly examined the issue for over six decades. Criminal rules adopted in 1946 included a prohibition on electronic media coverage of criminal proceedings. In 1972, the Judicial Conference adopted a prohibition against "broadcasting, televising, recording, or taking photographs in the courtroom and areas immediately adjacent thereto. . ." that applied to criminal and civil cases. In 1988, the Conference revisited the issue and recommended the Judiciary begin the three-year pilot program allowing electronic media coverage. A 1994 examination of the data collected in the subsequent Federal Judicial Center study convinced the Judicial Conference that the potentially intimidating effect of cameras on some witnesses and jurors was cause for considerable concern. In 1996 the Conference again considered the issue and voted to strongly urge each circuit judicial council to adopt an order not to permit the taking of photographs or radio and television coverage of proceedings in district courts. The Conference left it up to the appellate courts whether or not they would adopt similar rules, and all but two courts of appeals subsequently adopted prohibitions.

"This is not a debate about whether judges would be discomfited with camera coverage," Becker told the subcommittee. "Nor is it a debate about whether the federal courts are afraid of public scrutiny. They are not. . . . It is also not about increasing the educational opportunities for the public to learn about the federal courts or the litigation process. . . . Rather this is a decision about how individual Americans, whether they are plaintiffs, defendants, witnesses, or jurors, are treated by the federal judicial process. It is the fundamental duty of the federal Judiciary to ensure that every citizen receives his or her constitutionally guaranteed right to a fair trial. The Judicial Conference believes that the use of cameras in the courtroom could seriously jeopardize that right. It is that concern that causes the Judicial Conference of the United States to oppose enactment of S. 721."