Legislation & Lobbying

Fed'l Judges: Court Cameras Harm Trials

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Legislation that would give federal appellate and criminal judges more discretion to decide whether to permit cameras in their courtroom was debated in a House Judiciary Committee hearing on Capitol Hill yesterday.

Even one of its sponsors admits that the Sunshine in the Courtroom Act of 2007 isn’t clearly on a fast track for success, reports Broadcasting & Cable. But it’s only a question of time until cameras are allowed, at least occasionally, in all federal courts including the U.S. Supreme Court, predicts Rep. Steve Chabot (R-Ohio), a co-sponsor.

Broadcasting industry proponents said at the hearing that the bill would help keep the public informed about trials and create greater confidence and trust in the judicial system.

However, the policy-making arm of the nation’s federal courts testified against the bill. A representative of the Judicial Conference of the United States said it is concerned that cameras could jeopardize the right to a fair trial, and sees nothing wrong with the current courtroom camera rules, a press release reports.

“The Conference is convinced that camera coverage could, in certain cases, so indelibly affect the dynamics of the trial process that it would impair a citizen’s ability to receive a fair trial,” testified John Tunheim, a Minnesota U.S. District judge who chairs the Judicial Conference Committee on Court Administration and Case Management, citing security risks and privacy concerns, among other issues. “Since a United States judge’s paramount responsibility is to seek to ensure that all citizens enjoy a fair and impartial trial, and since cameras may compromise that right, allowing cameras would not be in the interest of justice.”

A transcript of Tunheim’s testimony is provided by the Judicial Conference.

Under the present system, “federal appeals courts have the discretion to allow coverage—two circuits currently permit TV cameras—but individual judges do not have the discretion, and no coverage of federal criminal trials is allowed,” reports Broadcasting & Cable. “By contrast, all state courts allow some kind of TV coverage.”

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