Committed to the First Amendment

Courts Should Give Cameras a Try

The Senate Judiciary Committee has passed a bill that will create a three-year test of cameras and microphones in federal courts. It now goes to the full Senate, where we have renewed hopes for its passage. Although two similar bills have failed to gain traction in recent years, primarily due to the continued opposition of some judges, this latest incarnation has been combined with a pay raise for the federal judiciary. Still, it shouldn't take a bunch of carrots to coax those judges into the present.

This bill does not mandate coverage. It gives judges total discretion over whether a trial is covered, how much of it will be covered, and how it will be covered. If, say, a judge is concerned for his own safety, he can have his face obscured. If she is concerned about intimidation of witnesses, a common objection to cameras, their faces will be obscured as well. Any witness can demand the same protection. There is even a three-year sunset.

Every state now allows some electronic media coverage of its courts. The House and Senate have become must-viewing for political junkies. The federal courts have already missed their opportunity to join the 20th century, but at least they could get in relatively early on the 21st. Arguably having independent eyes and ears in such courts is even more important given the current debate over secret trials in the name of national security and the fight against terrorism. Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), one of the bill's many sponsors, said as much last week in arguing for its passage.

This would not be the first such test of cameras in federal courts. More than a decade ago, the electronic media were allowed into selected federal civil trials on a three-year basis. On the strength of that test—and citing the "vital role of print and electronic media as surrogates for the public"—the advisory committee to the Judicial Conference, which oversees federal courts, recommended that civil trials be opened up permanently and a test extended to criminal trials. To the anger and dismay of broadcast and cable journalists, the Conference's response was to disregard that advice and shut the door once more, citing concern over the effects on witnesses and jurors. That despite its own in-house staff report of "minimal" impact on the proceedings. It was a wrongful verdict, and it is past time to overturn it.

Better Late Than Never

We were pleased to see the media-ownership issue get something approaching a full-court press last week, with stories on Nightline
and CNN and CNBC and in The Washington Post,
to name a few.
One of the public advocate criticisms that seemed to hit home was undercoverage of the issue in the major media (with the exception of public broadcasting). It may be a little late in the game—or not, if dereg opponents take their case to Congress and the courts—but after last week, that criticism loses some of its sting.