Should cameras be allowed in federal courtrooms?
What do you picture when you think of a courtroom during a trial?
You might think of a high-drama scene from “Law and Order: Criminal Intent.” Or you might think of inky drawings from your local news station’s court artist.
The reality of courtrooms isn’t as intense as the first one – and a lot more three-dimensional than the other – and the federal court system wants to break down this divide between perception and reality. A pilot program, approved by the U.S. Judicial Conference in September, will allow participating federal courts to record civil trials and post them on the Internet.
Judge James Ware in the Northern District of California, which applied to be part of the program, told the San Francisco Chronicle that it would “allow public access to real court proceedings, as opposed to Hollywood’s version.”
Cameras in the courtroom have been a point of controversy for almost 50 years. The Supreme Court ruled in the 1965 case Estes v. Texas that a defendant accused of serially conning farmers had not received a fair trial because of extensive media coverage – multiple cameras, power lines and audio cables were strung all over the courtroom. The court ruled 5-4 that the media circus was distracting to the judges, the jurors and the witnesses – even after the judge ordered the equipment moved to an isolated booth in the back of the courtroom – and its presence adversely affected both testimony and decisions, in that trial as well as trials in general.
This led to a rule at the national level that cameras would not be permitted in federal courtrooms. However, as the 1981 case Chandler v. Florida decided, state courts are free to tackle the issue however they see fit. This means each state has a slightly different rule for courtroom cameras – some leave televised coverage entirely up to the judges. Others allow cameras to record only cases that do not involve sexual abuse or minors – where recording the trials might be considered an invasion of privacy. Some states don’t allow trials to be recorded unless everybody involved consents.
Even with the varied sets of rules, First Amendment advocates say that restrictions on cameras in the courtroom violate the First Amendment guarantee of a free press. Recording trials for the public to see keeps it informed about individual cases, as well as makes it aware of how the justice system works.
Judge Ware agrees with this. But he also understands the need to protect the people in the courtroom who are not spectators.
“We’re trying to accommodate the public’s right to know what’s going on in one of its public institutions,” he told the Chronicle, “but also the parties’ interest in not having the process invade unnecessarily their personal privacy.”
What do you think?
Should federal courts allow cameras in the courtroom? If not, why not? If so, at what level? Should trials be broadcast live? Should they be recorded only if everybody agrees? Is there some compromise that should be allowed? If you were on a jury, would cameras in the courtroom affect your verdict? How important is the public’s right to know what goes on in its courts?
Join the Discussion