Federal Court Video Law Advances

Posted by msch on May 3, 2010 7:47:00 PM

Senate Bill S.657, The Sunshine in the Courtroom Act of 2009, to expand video camera and media access in the federal courts

The Senate Judiciary Committee has approved three bills that would expand video coverage in federal courts:

  • S. Res. 339, which would express the sense of the Senate that televising the Supreme Court's proceedings should be allowed;
  • S.446, which would require the Supreme Court to permit televising its proceedings;
  • S.657, the Sunshine in the Courtroom Act, which would expand camera access throughout the federal judiciary.

According to the National Law Journal, the Sunshine in the Courtroom Act of 2009,

"...asks the Judicial Conference to devise guidelines that judges can use in deciding whether to permit cameras. And the bill also instructs the Judicial Conference to craft guidelines that address the protection of undercover officers and crime victims among other people.

A sponsor of the bill, Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, said in a statement Thursday: "Letting the sun shine in on federal courtrooms will give Americans an opportunity to better understand the judicial process. This bill is the best way to maintain confidence and accountability in the judicial system and help judges do a better job."

Sen. Patrick Leahy, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said in a statement that the federal courts have 'lagged behind' Congress and its committees when it comes to televising proceedings."

Indeed, the federal courts also lag behind state courts. Nearly all states allow some sort of camera coverage, and at least 37 allow media to provide video coverage of trials.

Florida has for more than 30 years allowed video coverage of nearly all proceedings. The Florida Supreme Court recently stated, "Cameras in the courts have become so much a part of Florida public culture that few question the idea any more." 

In Kentucky, video cameras are permanently mounted in 98% of courtrooms, to provide an official record of the proceedings. 

A judge in California recently approved video coverage of an asbestos trial over the objections of all parties. The court concluded that it could condition the coverage so as to prevent prejudicial effect, and if any negative impact nonetheless materialized, the camera coverage could be further restricted at that time to mitigate the negative effect. Baker v. A.W. Chesterton, 2010 WL 1734635 (Cal.Superior).

Given the ubiquity of court video in state courts -- CVN alone has covered hundreds of cases in 30 states -- the empirical objections to camera coverage (e.g., intimidation of witnesses, disruption of proceedings, confusion of jurors) have no basis in fact. Instead, the opposite has been proven: video cameras can improve public access to judicial proceedings without detrimental effect.

The next step for the Sunshine in the Courtroom Act of 2009 would be a vote by the full Senate. The House version of the bill, H.R. 3054, sponsored by William Delahunt (D-MA), is in the House Committee on the Judiciary.

Topics: Court Video