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Cameras in Courts Proposal Wins Early Support in Senate

June 25, 2021 by Tom Ramstack
(Wikimedia Commons)

WASHINGTON — A Senate committee approved bills Thursday to put video cameras in federal courts in a move that ups the chances more of the proceedings will reach household televisions soon.

If the proposed legislation wins as expected in a final vote, it would run up against the Supreme Court’s opposition to video cameras.

A majority of the senators on the Judiciary Committee say cameras would give greater transparency and public accountability to an important government function.

The Supreme Court says cameras could violate the privacy of parties and witnesses in cases.

The justices also are concerned attorneys would try to act in a more dramatic way that garners television coverage, rather than putting their clients’ rights first.

“I think if the people can see how justice is done, they’ll have a better appreciation for that justice,” said Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, who sponsored one of the bills. “Right now, the working of the [Supreme] Court is a remote process.”

His bill, the Sunshine in the Courtroom Act, S. 818, would allow all federal court proceedings to be photographed, recorded, broadcast or televised at the discretion of the presiding judge. A judge could exclude the media coverage if the evidence showed it was likely to interfere with a fair trial.

The other bill marked up Thursday for a final vote was the Cameras in the Courtroom Act, S. 807.

It would go further by requiring the Supreme Court to allow television coverage of all its open sessions. Cameras could be blocked only if the justices agree by majority vote the coverage would violate due process rights of the parties.

Similar bills have been introduced in the House and Senate periodically since 1937 but always failed. This time, the COVID-19 pandemic is changing lawmakers’ minds.

During the pandemic quarantine, all federal appeals courts, including the Supreme Court, allowed live audio access to arguments. The broadcasts were well-received by the public, according to supporters of the Senate bills.

In addition, the Sixth Amendment requires that court proceedings be open to the public.

Nevertheless, the proposals are running into the same kind of opposition that led to their failures in previous sessions of Congress.

This week, the director of the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts sent a letter to Senate Judiciary leaders that said, “The intimidating effect of cameras on litigants, witnesses and jurors has a profoundly negative impact on the trial process.”

Some federal appeals courts allow cameras in courtrooms now, but only with permission of the U.S. Judicial Conference, which is authorized by Congress to set policy guidelines for administration of federal courts.

The Sunshine in the Courtroom Act would transfer the decision on cameras in courts to individual judges.

The letter from Roslynn Mauskopf, director of the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts, said the risk from a judge’s discretionary decision was that cameras might intimidate defendants, trample their privacy and jeopardize security for the court and its staff.

Only the most conservative members of the Senate Judiciary Committee disagreed with the idea of allowing cameras in courts.

“I don’t want to see the Supreme Court turning into a political drama,” said Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas. “I think there’s too much politics at the court.”

However, Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., said the recent trial of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin after the killing of George Floyd demonstrated the value of cameras in courts.

“There was accountability and people were watching,” Klobuchar said. 

The televised trial showed anguished witnesses testifying about how Chauvin kneeled on Floyd’s neck on May 25, 2020 until he was dead. Chauvin was convicted of murder.

“I thought that was a moment of redemption,” Klobuchar said.

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