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House committee considers camera access to federal courts

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  1. Court Access
Sep. 28, 2007  ·   Representatives from both sides of the aisle showed support in a hearing Thursday for legislation…

Sep. 28, 2007  ·   Representatives from both sides of the aisle showed support in a hearing Thursday for legislation that would open up federal courtrooms for broadcasting of their proceedings.

The bill, termed the “Sunshine in the Courtroom Act of 2007,” or H.R. 2128, would give district court judges discretion over whether and to what extent to allow cameras in their courtrooms. Currently, two appellate circuits – the 2nd and 9th – allow cameras, and all 50 states have provisions to allow recording of proceedings at some level. However, there is no policy allowing cameras at the federal trial level.

Testifying in favor of the measure, Rep. Ted Poe (R-Texas) recounted his experience as a judge in his home state where he allowed cameras in his courtroom. He noted the public aspect of the judicial process, but pointed out that it is not possible or practical for most members of the public to actually attend a trial.

“It does not make sense that a person must be physically present – not everyone can attend a court hearing,” he said. “The public has a right to watch courtroom proceedings in person. They should not be deprived of that right to know just because they cannot physically be present to sit in the courtroom.”

Poe’s position was echoed both by other witnesses and the congressional representatives questioning them.

“These are public employees doing the public’s business in public buildings,” testified Susan Swain, president and CEO of C-SPAN. “The public has the right to witness what occurs in federal court,” she said, adding that television is the “only viable way to let that happen.”

The full committee heard testimony from pro-camera witnesses, but also questioned opponents of the measure.

Judge John W. Tunheim, of the U.S. District Court in Minneapolis and speaking on behalf of the Judicial Conference of the United States, offered statistics from a study by the Federal Judicial Center finding that 64 percent of responding judges who allowed cameras felt that witnesses were made more nervous by their presence. He argued that anything that might discourage witnesses from participating in a trial was a cause for concern. The Judicial Conference “strongly opposes” the legislation, he said.

Rep. Artur Davis (D-Ala.) countered that there are likely a number of factors that witnesses would say could strain their testimony. “I bet if you asked witnesses whether the presence of the defendant makes them nervous, they would say it does; or whether they would be nervous to testify before an audience of live people – I bet they would,” he said.

But even supporters agreed on some of the concerns surrounding the legislation, introduced jointly by Reps. William D. Delahunt (D-Mass.) and Steve Chabot (R-Ohio). The safety and security of the parties involved was repeatedly discussed, but supporters pointed out that judges could require distorting or disguising voices or images, or could forbid recording certain portions of the proceedings entirely.

The U.S. Department of Justice voiced strong opposition to the measure, primarily discussing the difficulty of getting victims of violent crime to take the stand. “For those types of victims, it is incredibly difficult to begin with, adding to that the pressure of knowing that their remarks are going to be heard not only by people in that courtroom but also that they will be stamped indelibly on the world wide web makes it more difficult.”

The issue isn’t one of whether cameras should be allowed in courts, but rather how it should be implemented said Judge Nancy Gertner of the U.S. District Court in Boston. She pointed out that courts have become equipped to deal with the technology of the day and that parties file electronically and the public can find opinions online.

Instead of questioning the witnesses, several representatives spent their time offering their own testimony as to why the measure would make good law. Rep. Elton Gallegly (R-Calif) discussed the importance of the broadcast of the O.J. Simpson criminal trial in the California courts.

“The camera in the courtroom actually gave the public the most accurate picture of what was actually transpiring and the public made up its own mind – in vastly different ways – about whether justice was served,” he said.

Rep. Daniel Lundgren (D-Calif) rhetorically asked the opponents what the “craziness is that says ‘yes the Supreme Court is public so long as you can be one of the few people who can get into one of the few seats in there.'”

“What does ‘public’ mean to you that only the select number of people who can get there can see it,” he posed.

Also testifying in favor of the bill was Barbara Cochran, the president of the Radio-Television News Directors Association and Fred Graham, an anchor from Court TV and a member of the steering committee of the Reporters Committee.

Corinna Zarek


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