Congress Considers Camera Bills; State Courts Open Doors

By Hough, Troy | News Media and the Law, Fall 2000 | Go to article overview
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Congress Considers Camera Bills; State Courts Open Doors


Hough, Troy, News Media and the Law


While venues such as state courts have grown more receptive to permitting cameras, journalists still must confront strong opposition in the federal counterparts. Resistance may be the greatest, however, at state supreme courts and the U.S. Supreme Court.

The following are some recent examples in the ongoing attempt to open all branches of the governmental process to broadcast reports.

In a continuing effort to increase public accountability in all branches of government, U.S. Sens. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) and Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) heard testimony in early September on their bill to allow television cameras into federal courts.

Dubbed the Sunshine Act, the bill would allow the judges to decide whether to permit cameras to record their sessions. A panel of state and federal judges, legal scholars and broadcasters gave testimony in support of the legislation before the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee Administrative Oversight in September.

KCCI-TV News Director David Busiek of Des Moines, Iowa, said on behalf of the Radio-Television News Directors Association, "our members are the people who have demonstrated that television and radio coverage works at the state and local levels, and try can make it work cnt a federa Chief Judge Edward Becker of the U.S. Court of Appeals in Philadelphia (3rd Cir) opposed the measure, basing his position on the Judicial Conference study that cited an intimidating effect of cameras on all participants.

Judge Nancy Gertner, from the federal district ofMassachusetts, responded by stating that as technology advances "cameras become less and less physically intrusive in the courtroom."

"The experience of the 48 states with cameras in the courtroom cannot be ignored," Lynn Ward, professor of law at Brigham Young University, said of the state courts. "None of those states has been so dissatisfied with the experience to repeal the rules." Rather, he said, the courts and commentators report generally very positive experiences. (S. 721)

In the wake of similar legislation pertaining to federal courts, a Senate bill sponsored by Sens. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) and Joseph Biden (D-Del.) would allow cameras to broadcast Supreme Court hearings.

Specter said the legitimacy of the bill is based on the court's own decisions recognizing the right of access afforded to the public and press in certain cases. The bill was introduced on Sept. 21.

"Since the Supreme Court has assumed the power to decide cutting-edge issues of public policy virtually as a super-legislature, the public has a right to know what the court is doing," Specter added in a written statement.

The Supreme Court has struck down a law that it held encroached upon state sovereignty in a case, which the court found a federal statute regulating gun-free school zones under the commerce clause was unconstitutional.

Specter said with the impact of the court's decisions, the public needs to keep a close eye on the court's proceedings.

But efforts to bring camera coverage into the high court will meet stiff opposition. In 1996, Justice David Souter told a Senate subcommittee, "The day you see a camera come into our courtroom it's going to roll over my dead body." (S. 3086) Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg in midOctober discussed her thoughts on cameras in the U.S. Supreme Court during ceremonies marking the 125th anniversary of the Canadian Supreme Court.

Stating her own view and not the view of the court, she would not object to having gavel to gavel coverage provided the court have control of the cameras present in the Court, she said.

"Right now the view is that our proceedings should not be televised," Ginsburg told the Ottawa Sun, adding that the Court has a "wait-and-see" attitude.

The Canadian Supreme Court has gavel-to-gavel television coverage and arguably can be considered the most publicly accessible court in the world.

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