A Reversal on Cameras in Federal Courts

Article excerpt

The U.S. Judicial Conference revives a committee considering television coverage of civil cases.

A small crack has opened in the wall the federal courts built around themselves last year to block television and radio coverage. By a divided vote, the U.S. Judicial Conference has agreed to rethink its decision last year to black out all U.S. District Courts and Courts of Appeals.

The battle seemed lost last December, when a conference committee exploring electronic coverage voted to shut down, saying it "would make no further recommendations regarding cameras in the federal courts." The action followed a vote last September by the full judicial conference - the policymaking arm of the federal courts - to end a modest three-year experiment (see "The Press and the Law," December 1994). The prospect then was that the only sights and sounds of justice-in-progress would come out of state court trials and appeals hearings.

But the idea of equal time for cameras in federal courthouses is a hardy one. It keeps coming back despite the staunch resistance of federal judges, many of whom seem unable to overcome the fear that cameras will skew the judicial process - even though a number of studies indicate the fear is baseless.

This time, the idea was revived not by the broadcast press but by a handful of influential federal appeals court judges unwilling to keep their courts in the dark. They persuaded the conference's leaders its executive committee - to put the question on the agenda for a meeting in March. After 10 minutes of discussion, the conference voted 17-9 to tell the committee that had closed up shop that it was back in business.

The resolution told the committee, in roundabout language, that it "is not prohibited from proposing pilot programs or conducting other studies necessary to the making of further recommendations on cameras in the courtroom." But like many of its predecessors, the proposal had a catch: The committee is only free to consider televising civil cases. No mention was made of criminal cases, which tend to attract far more interest from the press.

Perhaps it is not a coincidence that the chairman of the conference's executive committee is a judge who supports cameras in at least some federal courts: Circuit Judge Gilbert S. Merritt of Nashville. In fact, he was among the small group of judges who had been lobbying their colleagues to let the appeals courts, at least, start a new TV experiment.

Merritt told reporters after the conference's latest vote that there are "lots of options" available for broadcast coverage and that opening up appeals courts was "still on the table. …