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Judicial Conference Opposes Use of Cameras in Federal Trial Courts
Citing the Judiciary view that camera coverage can undermine the fundamental
right of citizens to a fair and impartial trial, a representative of the
Judicial Conference testified last month against H.R. 2128, the Sunshine in the
Courtroom Act of 2007.
The bill was the topic of a House Judiciary Committee hearing at which Judge
John R. Tunheim (D. Minn.), the chair of the Judicial Conference Committee on
Court Administration and Case Management, testified.
“The Judicial Conference strongly opposes H.R. 2128 to the extent that it
allows the use of cameras in the federal trial courts,” he told the Committee.
“The Conference also opposes the bill’s provisions allowing the use of cameras
by any panel in all courts of appeals, rather than allowing that decision to be
made by each court of appeals as a whole, which is the present practice.”
Also testifying at the hearing were Judge Nancy Gertner (D. Mass.);
Representative Ted Poe (R-TX); U.S. Attorney John Richter from the Western
District of Oklahoma; Susan Swain, President of CSPAN; Barbara Cochran,
President of the Radio-Television News Directors Association, and Court TV
anchor Fred Graham. Of the panel participants, only Tunheim and Richter pointed
out the pitfalls of camera coverage.
U.S. Attorney Richter testified on behalf of the Department of Justice. In
DOJ’s view of H.R. 2128, “the potential harm to fair trials and the cause of
justice are many, are likely, and would be severe. In contrast, the benefits, if
any, would be small.”
Electronic media coverage of criminal proceedings in federal courts has been
expressly prohibited under Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure 53 since the
criminal rules were adopted in 1946. In 1972, the Judicial Conference adopted a
prohibition against “broadcasting, televising, recording or taking photographs
in the courtroom and areas immediately adjacent thereto,” a prohibition applying
to criminal and civil cases.
The Judicial Conference began a three-year pilot program in 1991, allowing
electronic media coverage of civil proceedings in six district and two appellate
courts. The Conference subsequently concluded that cameras had a potentially
intimidating effect on some witnesses and jurors and that it was not in the
interest of justice to permit cameras in federal trial courts.
“The Conference is convinced that camera coverage could, in certain cases, so
indelibly affect the dynamics of the trial process that it would impair a
citizen’s ability to receive a fair trial,” Tunheim said. “Since a United States
judge’s paramount responsibility is to seek to ensure that all citizens enjoy a
fair and impartial trial, and since cameras may compromise that right, allowing
cameras would not be in the interest of justice.”
In 1996, the Judicial Conference made a distinction between camera coverage
for appellate and district court proceedings.
“Because an appellate proceeding does not involve witnesses and juries, the
concerns of the Conference regarding the impact of camera coverage on the
litigation process were reduced,” Tunheim said. The Conference agreed to
authorize each court of appeals to decide whether or not coverage would be
permitted. The Second and Ninth Circuits presently permit camera coverage in
“This is not a debate about whether judges would have personal concerns
regarding camera coverage,” Tunheim explained. “Nor is it a debate about whether
the federal courts are afraid of public scrutiny or about increasing the
educational opportunities for the public to learn about the federal courts or
the litigation process. Open hearings are a hallmark of the Federal Judiciary.
“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 . . . . [T]he Judicial Conference believes that the use of cameras in the
trial courtroom could seriously jeopardize that right.”