Courts

Shine the Light Into U.S. Court

11/11/2005 7:00 PM Eastern

The following is an excerpt from Court TV chairman and CEO Henry Schleiff’s Nov. 9 testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee during a hearing in cameras in the courtroom:

Our system of jurisprudence and, especially, our constitutional history of providing public trials, is an essential element not only of our democracy but of freedom itself. And just as the United States today represents a beacon of freedom, we should also allow that light to shine on the example that our own courtrooms provide.

The importance to our own citizens of allowing cameras in the courtroom is really threefold: one, it enhances public scrutiny of the judicial system, which helps assure the fairness of court proceedings; two, this, in turn, serves to promote public confidence in our third branch of government; and three, it increases our citizens’ knowledge about how this branch actually functions. Because television is the principal means through which most people get their news, it only follows that this same vehicle be employed as a tool to inform and to educate the electorate in this way.

Justice Louis Brandeis was both more succinct — and more eloquent — when he said, “Sunshine is the best disinfectant.” We agree — and we vigorously support proposed legislation which would open the courthouse doors to cameras and, indeed, let the sun shine in.

Certainly, camera coverage of government proceedings is nothing new in the United States. Both houses of this Congress have already opened their own chambers to television cameras. This legislation would then merely provide that the third branch of our federal government, the judiciary, be given the opportunity to take a similar step. Of course, as proposed in the draft legislation … trial judges should also be given the discretion in their courtrooms to determine whether to permit a camera in a particular trial, which is an important and practical safeguard.

In the United States, there is a growing consensus that having cameras in the courtrooms serves the public interest — today, in fact, some 43 states permit cameras in their trial courts. Since 1991, Court TV has covered more than 900 U.S. trials and legal proceedings, providing more than 30,000 hours of courtroom coverage.

Moreover, in our 15 years of television coverage, no judgment has ever been overturned because a camera was in the courtroom.

On the contrary, a myriad of studies over the past two decades, tracking the impact of cameras, has indicated that they do not disrupt or otherwise interfere with the proceedings. Why? Because the camera permits the viewer to follow a trial, moment by moment, with his own eyes and ears, enabling such a viewer to more completely understand and, therefore, accept the verdict.

Some Justices of the Supreme Court have over the years claimed that allowing cameras in their courtroom would cause them to lose their personal anonymity or, perhaps, even lessen the court’s moral authority.

However, I would submit to you that where no witnesses or other parties are involved, just lawyers arguing to other lawyers — albeit, lawyers dressed in robes — about issues which may fundamentally affect our daily lives, such as affirmative action, personal choice, religious freedom or our civil rights — the potential loss of anonymity would seem to be a fair price to pay.

September