Lights, cameras, litigate

Prospects brighten for bill allowing cameras in courts

Cameras may soon be allowed in federal courts, thanks to the Senate's shift to Democratic control.

Last week, Sens. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) reintroduced a bill that would allow federal judges to decide whether to open their courts to TV cameras and tape recorders. Currently, the policy-making body for federal judges, the Judicial Conference, does not allow cameras in most federal courts, although it leaves it up to the judge's discretion in federal appeals courts.

One of the bill's co-sponsors is Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), who last week took over as chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee. He plans to allow hearings and a committee vote on the bill. Schumer is now chairman of the subcommittee that has authority over the bill. He plans to hold a hearing soon. Former Senate Judiciary Chairman Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) opposed the bill and would not allow it through his committee.

"I think the thing is going to pass this year because I don't see how it can be stopped. Hatch was the problem before," says an industry source, who also says Hatch opposed the bill in deference to the wishes of the Judicial Conference and Supreme Court Chief Justice William Rehnquist. The conference thinks allowing cameras in federal trials would compromise the safety and honesty of witnesses and jurors, says spokesman David Sellers.

Schumer has been pushing to allow cameras and tape recorders into federal courts since he was a member of the House.

Reps. Steve Chabot (R-Ohio) and William Delahunt (D-Mass.) plan to introduce companion legislation to Schumer-Grassley by the end of the month. Sources don't expect it to pass.

The Radio-Television News Directors Association and Court TV have been pushing hard to open federal courts to cameras and tape recorders.

"What makes this different this year," says RTNDA Executive Director Barbara Cochran, is the Supreme Court's release of audio transcripts of arguments in Bush
v. Gore. "That really drove home to the public, to the judiciary and to members of Congress how short-sighted it is not to be using 21st-century technology in one branch of government."