May 01, 2011

Senate Committee Approves Cameras-in-Courts Bill

A bill approved last month by the Senate Judiciary Committee would allow federal trial and appellate judges to permit the photographing, electronic recording, broadcasting or televising to the public of court proceedings over which they preside except when the action might constitute a violation of any party’s due process rights.

The committee approved the bill, S. 410, by a 12-6 vote on April 7. Similar legislation has cleared the panel during the past three Congresses, but has stalled in the full Senate.

“Letting the sun shine in on federal courtrooms will give Americans an opportunity to better understand the judicial process,” according to Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa). Grassley, who introduced the bipartisan legislation with Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), emphasized that the presence of cameras in the courts would not be mandatory and would be at the sole discretion of the judges.  The bill also includes provisions for mandatory guidelines to be set by the Judicial Conference of the United States for obscuring the identities of vulnerable witnesses.

Nineteen states allow news coverage in most courts, 16 allow coverage with slight restrictions, and the remaining 15 allow coverage with stricter rules. Grassley said that S. 410 includes provisions to ensure that the introduction of cameras and other broadcasting devices into federal courtrooms goes as smoothly as it has at the state level.

The Judicial Conference and the Supreme Court historically have opposed electronic coverage of court proceedings. Since 1996, the Judicial Conference has authorized each court of appeals to determine the circumstances in which cameras, if any, may be permitted in their courts in civil cases. Last September, the Judicial Conference, announced a three-year pilot project “to evaluate the effect of cameras in federal district courts and the public release of digital video recording of some civil proceedings.” A call went out this past March encouraging districts to participate in the project.

The ABA supports further experimentation with cameras in the courts under guidelines promulgated by the Judicial Conference. The association maintains that courts that conduct their business openly and under public scrutiny protect the integrity of the federal judicial system by guaranteeing accountability to the people they serve.

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