Courtroom Cameras: The Issue Is Access : Federal experiment is in danger of extinction

As court watchers focus on Superior Court Judge Lance A. Ito's pending decision on whether to ban cameras from his courtroom during the O. J. Simpson trial, the plug has quietly been pulled on a promising experiment in televising federal civil trials. This is very unfortunate.

In a closed session last week, the federal Judicial Conference of the United States, the policy-making body of the federal courts, voted not to renew a three-year pilot project involving cameras in civil trials and proceedings when the project closes at year's end. The 27-judge conference voted roughly 2 to 1 against cameras in their courts. This despite what the Judicial Center, the research arm for the federal courts, called favorable results in the experiment.

Moreover, 47 states now permit court proceedings to be televised or photographed. For a decade now, California has permitted cameras at civil and criminal trials if the judge consents. The California Judicial Council's rule bars cameras during jury selection and prohibits showing jurors or potential jurors, to protect their privacy. (That's why Judge Ito excluded cameras Tuesday from the courthouse hallway where jurors from other trials congregate during recesses. He did so after pictures of jurors outside his courtroom were broadcast.) California's rule also gives judges the authority to ensure that television cameras do not interfere with courtroom decorum.

Are federal trials inherently so different that television would, despite the recent experimental evidence to the contrary, undermine the judicial process? Or is it more likely that federal judges, who have life tenure, are simply more resistant to change in their routines? The federal Judicial Conference should reconsider its total ban on cameras. If it doesn't, Congress ought to think about making its own rules in this area, something it can do by amending the Rules Enabling Act, the law that permits Congress, in some circumstances, to reject or modify rules made by the courts.

The issue obviously has resonance in the case of Simpson, the former football star being tried in state court on charges that he murdered his ex-wife and a friend of hers. After a disputed KNBC-TV report last week, Ito threatened to use the discretion the state Judicial Council grants him to pull the plug on television coverage. Ito says he will hold a hearing, still unscheduled, to receive arguments on the issue.

The judge's ire at erroneous media reports regarding this case is understandable, but barring cameras would do little to curb excesses. Indeed, the reports that have angered Ito, as well as defense and prosecution lawyers, involve out-of-court behavior, not courtroom proceedings.

Many who dislike the notion of cameras in court are concerned that television's presence would distort the proceedings or perhaps demean the solemn task at hand. Some lawyers may indeed play to the camera--to an audience beyond the courtroom--in ways they wouldn't otherwise. But responsible camera coverage is arguably an extension of Americans' right to an open trial. And the federal courts, no less than the state courts, belong to the people who come before them seeking justice, more than to the judges behind the bench.

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