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Judicial Conference allows cameras in federal district courts

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The Judicial Conference of the United States announced Tuesday a pilot project to allow cameras in some federal district courtroom…

The Judicial Conference of the United States announced Tuesday a pilot project to allow cameras in some federal district courtroom proceedings.

The conference, the policy-making arm of the federal courts, stated that only civil cases will be included in the program, according to the press release announcing the project. Although details of the program are still being developed, participation in the program shall be at the discretion of the trial judge, with the parties to the court proceedings having the opportunity to veto cameras.

The cameras will be set up and operated by court personnel, however; the new policy bars recordings by others, including the news media.

Congressional pressure, court interest and changes in video technology prompted the study — 16 years after the first experiment in the early 1990s, said David Sellers, spokesperson for the Administrative Office of the United States Courts.

In the 1990s, the Judicial Conference conducted a similar pilot program in civil proceedings in six district courts and two courts of appeals, but the program was never made permanent because of concerns about the impact on jurors and witnesses, Sellers said.

Cameras have been banned from federal criminal courts since 1946. In 1996, the conference allowed appeals courts to approve camera access, and now the U.S. Courts of Appeals in New York City (2nd Cir.) and San Francisco (9th Cir.) continue to do so, the release said.

All 50 states allow broadcasting in some form in the courtroom, according to a 2007 study conducted by the National Center for State Courts.

The Senate Judiciary Committee “overwhelmingly” approved a bill in 2008 that lets federal judges decide whether to allow electronic media in their courtrooms, and the House Judiciary Committee also passed similar legislation.

The issue gained more attention in January, when U.S. District Judge Vaughn Walker pressed for the release of video from California's Proposition 8 gay marriage trial, over which he was presiding. The U.S. Supreme Court, however, overruled his plan by a 5-4 vote.

The Judicial Conference’s decision does not apply to the Supreme Court, whose justices have expressed mixed opinions on the issue of cameras in the courtroom in the past. The newest member of the court, Elena Kagan, said last June that she supported cameras in the courtroom, according to news reports.

In a recent interview with NBC's Brian Williams, Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer expressed mixed feelings, saying he hasn’t had to take a position yet.