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House passes bill allowing cameras in federal courts

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NEWS MEDIA UPDATE   ·   WASHINGTON, D.C.   ·   Broadcasting   ·   Nov. 14, 2005

NEWS MEDIA UPDATE   ·   WASHINGTON, D.C.   ·   Broadcasting   ·   Nov. 14, 2005


House passes bill allowing cameras in federal courts

  • Federal judges would have the discretion to allow cameras in their courtrooms under an amendment easily passed by the House last week and opposed by the White House.

Nov. 14, 2005  ·   Federal district court trials and appellate arguments could be televised at the discretion of the presiding judge under an amendment passed on a 375-45 vote in the House of Representatives Wednesday. Republicans voted 221-1 in favor of the bill, with Democrats voting 153-44.

The amendment to the “Secure Access to Justice and Court Protection Act” includes provisions of the “Sunshine in the Courtroom Act,” a bill that would allow camera and recording devices into federal courts on a three-year trial basis. Pushed by a bipartisan group of legislators, including Reps. Steve Chabot (R- Ohio) and John Conyers (D- Mich.), the bill would extend camera access beyond state courts. Cameras are allowed in some type of court proceeding in all 50 states, and 41 states allow television coverage at both the trial and appellate court level.

“Allowing television cameras in federal courts will open up the judiciary and allow the American people to see how their justice system operates,” Chabot said. “This is a good public policy if you are a believer in open and accountable government.”

The bill now goes to the Senate, where Sens. Chuck Grassley (R- Iowa) and Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) have already introduced similar legislation.

In recognition of concerns about televising federal trials, the proposed legislation also provides safeguards for witnesses. Jurors and witnesses would be able to request that their faces be obscured or altered so their identities would be concealed in district court criminal trials.

At a hearing of the Senate Judiciary Committee on the issue held by Stevens before Wednesday’s vote, Barbara Cochran, president of the Radio-Television News Directors Association, and Henry Schleiff of Court TV spoke in support of cameras in the courtroom. The hearing focused on the Sunshine in the Courtroom Act and Judiciary Committee Chairman Sen. Arlen Specter’s bill pushing for Supreme Court proceedings to be televised.

Opponents of the legislation — lawyers, judges and the Judicial Conference, the policy-making arm of the federal judiciary — voiced concerns about the repercussions of televising criminal trials, potentially discouraging sexual abuse victims from testifying due to the heightened publicity.

Following House passage of the bill, the White House released a statement supporting the bill itself, but objecting to the amendment allowing cameras in the courtroom.

“While the administration understands the public interest in viewing trials, the Administration believes Section 22 has the potential to influence court proceedings unduly and to compromise the security of participants in the judicial process,” the statement read.

Chabot’s “Sunshine in the Courtroom Act,”joined by Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), was first introduced in 1997. The legislation was incorporated into the “Courts Improvement Act,” which passed in the House but not the Senate in the 1999-2000 session. Similar legislation pushing for cameras in federal courtrooms has been drafted over the years in the Senate. Specter and Grassley have introduced two separate bills in the Senate with the same intention as Chabot’s amendment.

(H.R. 1751)KT


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