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Congress weighs letting cameras into federal courtrooms, with a judge’s approval, while Minnesota toys with a similar change. From the…

Congress weighs letting cameras into federal courtrooms, with a judge’s approval, while Minnesota toys with a similar change.

From the Spring 2009 issue of The News Media & The Law, page 29.

By Ahnalese Rushmann

Twitter may have the judiciary abuzz these days with its impact in courtrooms, but for years efforts to technologically break open public access to the courts have centered on cameras and audio recordings. While major progress has been made on that front at the state level, federal lawmakers continue to test its viability in Congress.

In March, Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) introduced the “Sunshine in the Courtroom” bill, which would leave it up to federal judges to decide whether cameras or other electronic media belong in their courtrooms.

The measure was referred to the Senate Judiciary Committee, but similar legislation has had trouble getting beyond that stage in the past: Grassley spokeswoman Beth Levine said the bill, in various forms, has been introduced five times before by Grassley and Sen. Charles Schumer (D-NY).

It is not yet clear if the bill will reach the Senate floor for a vote anytime soon but this measure, Grassley believes, will at least pass through committee again.

Debate about the new bill will unfold against a different backdrop than that of its predecessors, thanks to Twitter and Facebook. So-called “social networking tools” are rapidly recasting our expectations for breaking news, while lawmakers themselves have been swept up in the Twitter craze. “As time goes by,” Radio and Television News Directors Association President Barbara Cochran said, “it seems more and more archaic for one branch of government that is not open to audio-visual coverage.”

In his push to open up federal courtrooms, Grassley pointed out that all but two states at this point allow some form of audio-video coverage in court. The RTNDA looked deeper in 2007 and found that 15 states were still pretty restrictive, either allowing appellate court-coverage only or imposing heavily restrictive rules for trial coverage.

But even in those less camera-friendly states, there are signs of change. A Minnesota Supreme Court order in February charged an advisory committee with designing a pilot project to study the impact of televised proceedings on victims and witnesses. The project aims to “provide the court with additional information important to any final decision it might make regarding the presence or absence of cameras in the courtroom on a statewide basis,” the order said.

The pilot project announcement came on the heels of a three-judge panel’s decision to allow cameras into state Supreme Court chambers during the drawn-out U.S. Senate seat battle between incumbent Republican Norm Coleman and Democrat Al Franken.

The problem with current state law, according to Minnesota Newspaper Association attorney Mark Anfinson, is that it requires parties involved and the judge to consent to coverage before a trial begins — something that rarely happens.

If anything, he said, the federal judiciary’s holdout has bolstered the arguments of opponents to cameras in state courts. Why should we open up our trials and hearings, Anfinson said critics tell him, if the federal system doesn’t see fit to do the same? Grassley’s bill helps and its ideas are promising, he said, but its introduction alone won’t resolve the issue.

Even so, Anfinson said, all things considered, pro-camera efforts are finally “starting to get traction and movement.”

Cochran said current events have periodically reignited the public debate on cameras in the court, going back at least as far as O.J. Simpson’s 1995 murder trial and, more recently, the U.S. Supreme Court case Bush v. Gore, which settled the 2000 presidential election. The public’s desire for ready technological access to the courtroom always resurfaces, she said.

In an era when, for many Americans, the only insight into the legal system is through television dramas like Law & Order, Cochran suggested that allowing cameras into federal courts would provide a new and more accurate opportunity for the public to witness courtroom action.

“Let’s bring reality to the federal judiciary system,” Cochran said.