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Senate panel hears testimony on bill to permit cameras in federal courts

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    NMU         WASHINGTON, D.C.         Broadcasting         Sep 11, 2000    

Senate panel hears testimony on bill to permit cameras in federal courts

  • Judges, journalists testify in favor of bill, saying the constitutional right of access to courtrooms mandates camera access.

At a U.S. Senate subcommittee hearing held in the shadow of the more-publicized Firestone tire hearing, members from both the state and federal bench along with legal scholars and a broadcaster testified on Sept. 6 in favor of a bill which seeks to make the workings of the federal courts more accessible to the public.

Dubbed the Sunshine Act, the bill sponsored by U.S. Sens. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) and Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) affords a federal judge the discretion to permit cameras to record the events in the courtroom.

Supporters of the bill rest on the U.S. Supreme Court precedent assuring public access to a criminal trial. Federal Judge Nancy Gertner of Boston testified to the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Administrative Oversight that in an electronic era the concept of a public proceeding necessitates a courtroom open to television cameras.

Among those before the subcommittee, Chief Judge Edward Becker of the U.S. Court of Appeals (3rd Cir.) was alone in opposition. Becker noted that the Judicial Conference cited the intimidating effect of cameras on all participants in a trial in concluding in 1994 that cameras should be kept out of federal courts.

Gertner said in response that the novelty of the cameras will wear off with time. She said as technology advances “cameras become less and less physically intrusive in the courtroom.”

KCCI-TV News Director David Busiek of Des Moines, Iowa, said on behalf of the Radio-Television News Directors Association, “our members are the people who have demonstrated that television and radio coverage works at the state and local levels, and they can make it work on a federal level.”

Attorney and author Ronald Goldfarb stressed the importance of the educational value of the bill, noting that “here, more than any other situation, the profound educational aspect of public information about the judicial process and the fundamental social issues eclipses the insignificant potential problems.”

“The experience of the 48 states with cameras in the courtroom cannot be ignored,” Lynn Ward, professor of law at Brigham Young University, said of the state courts. “None of those states has been so dissatisfied with the experience to repeal the rules.” Rather, he said, the courts and commentators report generally very positive experiences.

Judge Hiller Zobel of the Superior Court in Massachusetts told the subcommittee, “I do not believe that the courtroom appearance of a camera — video or still — in anyway interferes with or, indeed, affects to any degree the decorum of the proceedings or the fairness of the outcome,” he said. Zobel has allowed cameras in his courtroom, most notably in the high-profile case in which nanny Louise Woodward was convicted of killing a child in her care.

Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) said he intends to introduce legislation to open U.S. Supreme Court arguments to television cameras.

(S. 721) TH

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