Bill to allow cameras in federal courts introduced in Congress

Friday, March 26, 1999

Two members of the U.S. House and two members of the Senate yesterday introduced a measure that would allow all federal judges — from the trial-court level to the U.S. Supreme Court — to open their courtrooms to cameras.

The Sunshine in the Courtroom Act, introduced in the Senate by Sens. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, and Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., and in the House by Reps. Steve Chabot, R-Ohio, and William Delahunt, D-Mass., provides that federal trial and appellate judges may “permit the photographing, electronic recording, broadcasting, or televising to the public of court proceedings over which that judge presides.”

The measure would allow, but not require, cameras in federal courts. The measure also would allow witnesses to request that their “face and voice … be disguised or otherwise obscured.”

In announcing the introduction of the bill, Chabot said: “Currently, the American people are effectively prohibited from viewing federal court proceedings. In fact, most Americans had never heard Chief Justice Rehnquist speak prior to the Senate impeachment trial. In a democratic, technologically advanced society, I believe that this is a travesty.”

“The change would give the public greater access to the legal system and keep the federal judiciary more accountable,” Grassley said in a news release. “Nearly every state already gives cameras access to the courts. And no state has ever rescinded its decision to let the sun shine in.”

Press advocates applauded the effort to allow cameras in federal courts. Barbara Cochran, president of the Radio-Television News Directors Association, said in a news release: “RTNDA has long supported opening courtrooms at all levels to coverage by electronic media as a way of furthering the public's right to see their judicial system at work.”

Jane Kirtley, executive director of the Reporters Committee for the Freedom of the Press, also supports the idea of having cameras in the federal courts. However, she said: “I am not optimistic that the measure will ultimately change the level of access in federal courts, particularly in the federal district courts and the U.S. Supreme Court.”

Generally, cameras have been considered taboo in federal courts, however, nearly all states allow cameras in some courts. In 1990, the Federal Judicial Conference approved a three-year experiment allowing cameras in civil cases in two federal appeals courts and six federal trial courts beginning in July 1991. The report on the experiment recommended increased camera coverage in federal courts, but the Judicial Conference voted against the recommendation.

Chabot and Schumer introduced a similar measure last April. In May, the House passed the bill, but the Senate failed to consider it.