A Senate panel here last Thursday approved a bipartisan bill that would clear the way for cameras and other recording devices to be permitted in federal courtrooms.
The "Sunshine in the Courtroom Act," which the Judiciary Committee passed 12 to 7, gives federal judges discretion over whether to allow audio and video recordings of their proceedings.
Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), a sponsor, called the bill's passage "a victory for open government [that] would bring the federal judiciary into the 21st century."
But some cable-industry executives doubt the bill will greatly enhance their access to federal courtrooms, because judges are often reluctant to open their proceedings to cameras.
"Not a whole lot of new stuff is going to be open to cameras, so we didn't get all excited about it," C-SPAN vice president and general counsel Bruce Collins said. "It's a nice step in the right direction, but there is a tremendous bias towards keeping cameras out."
A Senate Judiciary Committee aide agreed, noting that the bill "really doesn't do a whole heck of a lot."
A spokesman for Rep. Steve Chabot (R-Ohio) — the author of companion legislation in the House — acknowledged "there's some hesitancy on the basis of the federal judges about how it will affect the courtroom."
Backers insist the judges' concerns are unfounded. In the early 1990s, a study of a pilot program found that allowing cameras in federal courtrooms would improve public scrutiny and would not affect verdicts. States that allow videotaping have had similar results.
The bill also allows witnesses whose testimony is taped to request that news organizations disguise their faces and voices.
Court TV general counsel Douglas Jacobs said his network was satisfied with the bill, despite others' concerns that its language was not strong enough.
"We are willing to live with judges having discretion," Jacobs said. "We would hope the federal judges wouldn't just say no."
Added Cable News Network spokeswoman Megan Mahoney, "CNN supports any bill permitting greater access to the courts."
Senate proponents said the bill would put "tremendous pressure" on judges to allow cameras into their courtrooms. But they called the legislation a compromise between those who want expanded media access and others who think courtrooms should remain off-limits to cameras.
Current nonbinding federal court guidelines prohibit cameras and other recording devices from courtrooms.
Almost all U.S. courts have complied with that regulation, but the Sunshine in the Courtroom Act would supersede that rule if it became law.
The issue was shoved into the national spotlight last year, when the Supreme Court declined to allow televised coverage of oral arguments in Bush v. Gore.
Grassley and Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), the bill's other sponsor, unsuccessfully petitioned the court to make an exception for that high-profile case, which had a direct bearing on the outcome of the presidential election.
In the House, Chabot's bill — which would expire three years after it is enacted — is currently stalled in committee. A vote on that measure, perhaps as part of a larger judiciary reform package, could come next spring.
Last year, the House passed a version of the bill, but the Senate never voted on it.
States News Service