Impeachment trial deals blow to efforts to get cameras in courtroom

Wednesday, February 17, 1999

Four years ago, the O.J. Simpson trial became a poster child for opponents of cameras in the court.

Television had spoiled the deliberative process and turned the trial into a circuslike spectacle, they said.

Now, early signs suggest that President Clinton’s impeachment trial may have the same symbolic impact on the cause of camera access to the courts.

On NBC’s “Meet the Press” Feb. 14, Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan made a post-impeachment confession to host Tim Russert — and to the show’s audience.

“I want to say something that won’t be, perhaps, well received in this company,” Moynihan said. “But, Tim, we do so much better when television isn’t watching.”

Moynihan was referring, of course, to the Senate’s two days of private final deliberations last week that preceded the public vote acquitting Clinton on the two articles of impeachment. Adhering to the pre-television precedent of the Andrew Johnson impeachment trial of 1868, senators had defeated an effort to hold those deliberations in public.

In a self-congratulatory mood after the long trial was over, several senators remarked that closing the Senate doors enhanced the candor of the conversation and produced some of the best political rhetoric they had ever heard. Voters may have wished that they’d been able to see the debate as they had seen the trial that went before, but the senators held fast and are pronouncing themselves well pleased.

Senators and members of the House of Representatives also may come away from the impeachment ordeal feeling that the presence of cameras, while hard to criticize in public, increased the political costs they may suffer in the next election. The wall-to-wall coverage of the trial, while educating voters in a beneficial way, may have sharpened partisan divisions in a negative way as well.

If those impressions linger among members of both houses of Congress, the future may not be bright for First Amendment advocates who have recently turned to Congress as perhaps the last hope for changing the federal courts’ policy toward cameras in the court. The federal judiciary itself — led by the justices of the Supreme Court — has long resisted the trend toward broadcast access that has swept through the courts of 47 states.

In the last term of Congress, bills were introduced that would have opened the door to cameras and microphones by giving federal judges the option to allow broadcast access. The bills did not pass.

Comments like Moynihan’s on “Meet the Press” suggest that the legislation may not do much better this year.

And how is the Supreme Court likely to react to the impeachment trial in terms of its views on cameras in the court? Chief Justice William Rehnquist, by most accounts, acquitted himself well as he presided over the trial and seemed not to fall victim to the temptations of celebrity as O.J. Simpson Judge Lance Ito did.

But Rehnquist will probably lose, perhaps forever, the cherished anonymity that he enjoyed before the impeachment trial. His days of tramping around in the neighborhood of the court unnoticed and usually unescorted may well be over, and his colleagues on the court who also love to be unrecognized, will be sympathetic. Justice Anthony Kennedy once said he was delighted not to be nearly as well known a judge as Ito.

Rehnquist may also return to the court with stories to tell his colleagues about the trivializing criticism of his own judicial robes. Much was made of the gold stripes he wore on each sleeve of his black robe — additions he made after seeing how the lord chancellor was dressed in a production of Gilbert & Sullivan’s “Iolanthe” several years ago.

One news cycle’s worth of criticism and joking about the stripes may have been warranted. But the criticism went on and on. Cartoonists had a field day. The Washington Post‘s fashion critic Robin Givhan even weighed in, criticizing Rehnquist not only for the stripes but for failing to zip his robe up all the way to his neck.

Rehnquist, who has an ample sense of humor, may well shrug off the criticism. But in the private counsel of the Supreme Court, the press treatment of the stripes is the sort of anecdote that will probably feed the justices’ notion that cameras in the court add nothing good to the judicial process and cheapen it by converting it into a form of entertainment. As with the O.J. trial, the excesses of the press may overshadow the undeniable benefits of public access.

After the O.J. Simpson trial, judges nationwide who had any choice began shutting their doors to cameras — some of them even asserting they were barring cameras because of high public interest. Court TV has been deprived of access to some of the most interesting trials that have taken place since.

There seems little danger that C-SPAN will suffer similar deprivation as a result of the Clinton impeachment trial. C-SPAN, in its 20 years of focusing on Congress, has made itself an indispensable part of the Washington scene. But unless the press makes its case quickly, the prospects for expanding television coverage to the Supreme Court and other federal courts may be one of the little-noticed casualties of the impeachment trial of William Jefferson Clinton.

Tony Mauro covers the Supreme Court for USA TODAY and is a legal correspondent for the First Amendment Center.