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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."