Fed Courts Could Get Cameras

Bill tied to judge pay raise is headed to the Senate floor

Broadcast and cable journalists are a step closer to a big victory on courtroom access. The Senate Judiciary Committee has passed a bill that will allow for a test of cameras and microphones in federal courts.

Although similar bills have been introduced before, this one appears to be on a fast track, said one Senate staffer, noting that it was introduced only in March and has already been voted out of committee. Improving its chances even more was a move by the committee two weeks ago to combine it with a bill authorizing pay raises for federal judges, including an automatic cost-of-living increase.

The combined bill now goes to the Senate floor for a vote, perhaps within the next few weeks, then to the House.

The media-access portion of the bill, which was introduced in March by Sens. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa), Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) and a host of co-sponsors, would give federal judges (trial and appellate) the discretion to allow cameras on a case-by-case basis.

In trials where coverage is allowed, the judge would be required to inform the witnesses that they have the right to request that their face or voice be "disguised or otherwise obscured."

The bill also directs the Judicial Conference, which oversees the courts, to draft guidelines for judges to refer to in deciding what electronic coverage to allow. The test would sunset in three years.

A new twist on the argument for cameras in federal courts is the access-to-information debate stemming from the administration's expanded powers in the war on terrorism. "Despite the dramatic shift toward excessive secrecy demonstrated by the current administration, the Freedom of Information Act remains a cornerstone of democracy," said Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), one of the bill's backers and Judiciary's ranking Democrat. "It establishes the right of Americans to know what their government is doing—or not doing. This legislation springs from one of our most essential principles: A democracy works best when the people have all the information that the security of the nation permits."

It has been almost a decade since the Judicial Conference halted a three-year test of cameras in federal civil courts, despite the recommendation of its own advisory committee that it be extended to criminal trials. In the interim, all 50 states have agreed to allow some form of electronic media coverage of trials.

The Judicial Conference remains opposed to cameras, said Leahy in a statement, noting continuing concerns about the potential for intimidating jurors and witnesses. But the Senator pointed out that the bill allows judges total discretion on when, how and whether to allow coverage.

Reps. Steve Chabot (R-Ohio) and William Delahunt (D-Mass.) are working on a similar bill in the House. Chabot introduced his bill last month as an amendment to the Federal Courts Improvement Act, which has been put on hold.

The Radio-Television News Directors Association, which has been on the front lines in the fight for access, was pleased with the Senate bill's progress but pushed its members to keep the pressure on. "I urge news directors throughout the country to write their Senators and Representatives urging passage of this legislation," said RTNDA President Barbara Cochran.