Congress to Vote on Allowing Cameras in Federal Courts

Congress will soon decide whether cameras, banned from federal courtrooms since 1946, will be permitted to televise federal court proceedings.

The decision to vote on the bill comes after the House Judiciary Committee approved the “Judicial Reform Act” by a voice vote and after Rep. Joe Scarborough (R-FL), an important member of the influential class first elected in 1994, announced his support. The bill, introduced by Rep. Steve Chabot (R-OH) and Rep. Charles Schumer (D-NY), has bipartisan support.

48 states now presently permit some television coverage of state courts, and no state has ever repealed a decision to allow TV coverage of its courts.

“It is appropriate that the decision to vote on this bill comes during ‘Crime Victims Month,’ said Amy Ridenour, president of The National Center for Public Policy Research, “because an open court system is more likely to be responsive to the people who depend upon it. Victim of the Oklahoma City bombing desperately wanted national TV coverage of the trial of Timothy McVeigh, but it wasn’t allowed. Even Fred Goldman and Johnnie Cochran, two men who don’t always agree about trials, both want camera coverage of federal courts.”

Under present law, TV coverage of federal proceedings at both the trial and appellate level is now effectively banned, and television coverage of federal civil proceedings is severely curtailed. Between 1991 and 1993 several federal courts conducted a pilot television project with great success. The project found that judges were neutral about allowing cameras, but after experiencing televised proceedings firsthand, became more favorable to the idea.

The National Center for Public Policy Research cites several reasons why cameras should be allowed:

Studies in 28 states show that TV coverage of court proceedings has significant social and educational benefits.

* Cameras allow citizens to see their judicial system at work. The public’s right to know is significantly enhanced by the presence of cameras in the U.S. House (since 1977) and the U.S. Senate (since 1986).

* The Founding Fathers intended public access to courtrooms, desiring courtrooms large enough to hold entire communities, and advocating, according to the journals of the Continental Congress, holding trials “before as many people as chuse to attend.”

* The Supreme Court has ruled, in Richmond Newspapers v. Virginia (1980), that “the First Amendment can be read as protecting the right of everyone to attend trials,” and said in Chandler v. Florida (1981) that the presence of cameras in a criminal trial is not a denial of due process.

* 48 states already allow cameras in the courtroom.

* Cameras in the courtroom benefit the victims of crimes. Victims of the Oklahoma City bombing, for instance, were adamant that they — and the world — be permitted to watch the trial of Timothy McVeigh.

The New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, former Attorney General Griffin Bell, and scores of columnists and policy analysts have endorsed cameras in the courtroom. The New York Times said: “The Court is not some private club. It is not supposed to be mysterious to the public it serves. Making it more accessible, and promoting greater public understanding of the complex questions it addresses, is the best way to honor the institution.”

The National Center for Public Policy Research is a communications and research foundation supportive of a strong national defense and dedicated to providing free market solutions to today’s public policy problems. We believe that the principles of a free market, individual liberty and personal responsibility provide the greatest hope for meeting the challenges facing America in the 21st century.