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December 01, 2014

House panel revives debate over cameras in courts courts; ABA supports continued experimentation

The issue of cameras in the courtroom received renewed attention this month as the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Courts, Intellectual Property and the Internet held a hearing Dec. 3 on H.R. 917, the Sunshine in the Courtroom Act.

The bill, introduced last year by Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa), would permit the presiding judge of a federal district or appellate court (including the Supreme Court) to authorize electronic media coverage of  both criminal and civil proceedings in accordance with mandatory guidelines promulgated by the Judicial Conference of the United States.

The ABA sent a letter Dec. 9 for the record of the hearing, commending the committee for continuing to focus public attention on this issue and expressing support for the objectives of the legislation.

In the letter, ABA Governmental Affairs Director Thomas M. Susman recounted the ABA’s “long and cautious history” on the issue since 1937 and underscored the ABA’s support for expanded experimentation with electronic media coverage of civil and criminal proceedings.

“We, like many congressional supporters of this legislation, believe that courts that conduct their business under public scrutiny protect the integrity of the federal judicial system by advancing accountability and providing an opportunity for the people they serve to learn about the role of the federal courts in civic life,” Susman explained.

The Supreme Court, which is not subject to the governance of the Judicial Conference, has never permitted video recordings of oral arguments. Susman did acknowledge that the court has taken significant steps to increase transparency and expedite access to oral arguments. The lower federal courts have engaged in limited experimentation with electronic coverage of civil proceedings. Electronic media coverage of criminal proceedings currently is prohibited by Rule 57 of the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure.

The Judicial Conference authorized its first three-year pilot project in seven district and appellate courts in the early 1990s, but thereafter decided to terminate coverage despite a favorable assessment of the project by the Federal Judicial Center.

The ABA and other organizations strenuously objected, and in 1996 the Judicial Conference partially reversed its position and allowed electronic media coverage of federal appellate courts. 

Recognizing the persistent interest of Congress, the media, and the public in expanding public access to court proceedings, the Judicial Conference initiated another pilot project to permit judges in 14 district courts to authorize video recordings of civil proceedings in accordance with promulgated guidelines. The pilot project, which will terminate in July 2015, will be evaluated by the Federal Judicial Center.

Susman praised the new pilot project and said that the Judicial Conference’s willingness to reexamine the bases for its views opposing expanded coverage and to reevaluate its policies in light of the results is a welcome change.

The ABA hopes that at the conclusion of this pilot project, Congress will “engage the Judicial Conference in rigorous discussion over the Federal Judicial Center’s analysis of the pilot project and will work to make sure that empirical data inform future decisions with regard to expanding electronic media coverage of federal court proceedings,” Susman said.

At the hearing, however, the Honorable Julie A. Robinson, a judge on the United States District Court for the District of Kansas, testified against H.R. 917 on behalf of the Judicial Conference.

“If enacted, this legislation will have the potential to impair substantially the fundamental rights of citizens to a fair trial, while undermining court security and the safety of jurors, witnesses, and other trial participants, including judges,” Robinson said. She emphasized the need to protect the privacy of all participants, and said she believes that the level of threat to federal judges may be heightened if proceedings are recorded. She also stressed the importance of protecting witnesses from potential intimidation or retaliation – something that would be made more difficult with cameras in the courtroom.

“I reject the idea that cameras will do any harm,” bill sponsor King said during the hearing, adding that there should be a “robust debate to weigh the pros and cons” presented by his bill.

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