House Allow Cameras in Federal Courts

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Washington -- Cameras would be allowed in federal
courtrooms at the judge's discretion as part of a controversial judicial-reform bill that
passed the House of Representatives this month.

The bill, sponsored by Reps. Steve Chabot (R-Ohio) and
Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), would allow TV cameras, radio broadcasts and still
photography into federal courts, at the judge's discretion. After three years, the policy
would be reviewed at the district-court level to decide whether it should be extended.
Cameras in appellate courts would be allowed indefinitely.

As a precaution, an amendment was added that would allow
witnesses who feared for their lives to have their faces blocked out or their voices

Currently, cameras are not allowed in federal courts,
although they are allowed in courts in 48 states; 43 states allow cameras in both trial
and appeals courts, while five states only allow cameras in appellate courts. There is no
Senate equivalent to the judicial-reform bill, although it could decide to take up the
House version.

"It is important to remember that the public owns the
courtrooms and wants to see the trials," said Jeff Ballabon, Courtroom Television
Network's senior vice president of corporate affairs. The cable-television network lobbied
Congress to drum up support for this measure.

"Even those [congressmen] who had problems with other
provisions in the bill said that this needs to happen. It helps to set aside the O.J.
Simpson trial paradigm, in terms of public policy," Ballabon said.

But the "media-circus" atmosphere surrounding the
Simpson trial is a problem for some critics of cameras in the courtroom.

"I don't really think that it [cameras in courtrooms]
is really judicial reform. We think that it sometimes negatively affects judicial
behavior," said Tim Tardibono, deputy director of the Judicial Selection Monitoring
Project, a conservative judicial-advocacy group. "A judge begins to think of taking
into consideration things that may influence how he deals with the case. The judiciary is
supposed to be independent."

Other measures in the bill have angered some
judicial-advocacy groups.

For example, one amendment that would prevent federal
judges from releasing prisoners due to prison overcrowding or bad conditions at a prison
has raised the ire of liberal groups.

Another key provision, derided by both liberal and
conservative groups, would send constitutional challenges of local and state initiatives
to three-judge panels, instead of to a lone judge. The provision would also shorten the
appeals process, sending appeals directly to the Supreme Court.

Despite the fact that many Democrats voiced concern about
these provisions during debate, the legislation passed the House by a voice vote.

"The House vote was significant for cable,"
Ballabon said. "I think that when the day comes that Americans can watch the Supreme
Court for themselves, it is going to be because of Court TV."

States News Service