House approves bill allowing cameras in federal courtrooms

Monday, April 27, 1998

AP Photo
The U.S. House of Representatives has for the first time approved legislation that would end the traditional ban on cameras in federal courtrooms.

Reps. Steve Chabot, R-Ohio, and Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., introduced the Sunshine in the Courtroom Act last spring because, they said, “the American people deserve the opportunity to see how the federal courts operate.” The full House passed the measure on Thursday.

Last month, the House Judiciary Committee approved the measure, which had been incorporated into a piece of legislation known as the Judicial Reform Act, by a 12-8 vote.

The measure empowers federal circuit courts of appeal to allow cameras at their discretion on a permanent basis. The bill also allows federal trial court judges to experiment with camera coverage as part of what the sponsors call a “three-year pilot program.”

Chabot called the vote “an important step toward providing the public with greater access to their government.”

In a news release, he said: “An informed citizenry is essential to our constitutional system of checks and balances. The federal courts play a very important part in our government, and federal judges serve for life. We need to encourage deeper understanding and further national discussion of the proper, and properly limited, role of federal judges.”

Barbara Cochran, president of the Radio and Television News Directors Association, hailed the House vote as a “great victory for electronic journalists and the public they seek to inform.” She said in a statement that “RTNDA has long supported opening courtrooms at all levels to electronic journalists so they can serve the public's right to observe the judicial system at work.”

Jeff Ballabon, senior vice president of Court TV and a strong pro-camera proponent, said: “We've been working on this for over two years. This vote is incredibly significant. It is a triumph for First Amendment rights and for the public in general.

“The idea that something that has worked well in 48 states [cameras in courts] will not work in federal courts is absurd and the federal judiciary knows that. This vote is really historic,” he said.

Ballabon said he believes a companion bill will be introduced in the Senate within a few weeks.