Federal Courts Stay Off-Camera

Article excerpt

Federal courts operate in their own little world, and that world will remain off-camera. Despite the reported success of a small-scale pilot program that allowed cameras into civil trials, the Judicial Conference of the United States has ended the experiment and retained a ban on cameras in federal courtrooms. The result was unexpected and unfortunate.

The current limited experiment began July 1, 1991, in federal district courts in Indianapolis, Boston, Detroit, Philadelphia, Seattle and Manhattan and appellate courts based in Manhattan and San Francisco. Only civil trials were involved, at the total discretion of the judges, who approved requests in scores of cases. The Federal Judicial Center, which monitored the process, said many judges had been wary at first but after two years, few if any problems had been reported.

Given that testimony, last week's closed session of the Judicial Conference was expected to approve a proposal to make the experiment permanent and extend it nationwide. Instead, the group reflected the well-known antipathy to the press expressed by its leader, Chief Justice William Rehnquist, and voted down the proposal by a vote of nearly 2-1. A spokesman for the conference said opponents had expressed "concern about jurors, witnesses potential distractions for jurors and witnesses, whether or not they were more nervous and, in particular, whether or not they feared for any harm. …