- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 1, 2003

The Senate will consider letting each federal judge decide on a case-by-case basis whether to televise proceedings in his or her courtroom.

The debate pits those who believe cameras will shed greater light on court proceedings against those who believe they will unnerve or threaten witnesses and usher in a circus atmosphere akin to the O.J. Simpson murder trial.

“The best way to maintain confidence and a better understanding of the judicial system — where the federal judiciary holds tremendous power — is to let the sun shine in by opening up the courtroom to public scrutiny through broadcasting,” said Sen. Charles E. Grassley, Iowa Republican and a sponsor of the legislation.

The “Sunshine in the Courtroom Act,” co-sponsored by Sen. Charles E. Schumer, New York Democrat, passed out of committee on a 14-4 vote in late May.

Voting against it were Sen. Orrin G. Hatch, Utah Republican and committee chairman, Sen. Jeff Sessions, Alabama Republican, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, California Democrat, and Sen. Saxby Chambliss, Georgia Republican.

The last time such a bill was passed out of committee was December 2001, but it died in the full Senate.

Supporters hope the bill’s passage out of committee on such a strong bipartisan vote means the whole Senate will view it more favorably. Mr. Schumer tried sweetening the deal by adding an amendment that joined the courtroom-cameras bill to a long-awaited pay raise for federal judges.

But the bill still has hefty opposition.

Mr. Hatch adamantly opposes the use of cameras.

“Cameras and electronic media in federal courtrooms could interfere with the ability of federal courts to mete out justice,” he told his colleagues before the committee vote. “The paramount objective of our federal courts is to administer fair and impartial justice.”

Specifically, Mr. Hatch said, the filming of trials could intimidate witnesses and cause innocent civil defendants to settle cases rather than defend themselves before the cameras.

“Moreover, a witness recounting facts to a jury often will act differently when he or she knows that thousands of people are watching and listening to the story,” he said. “This change in a witness’ demeanor could have a profound impact on a jury’s ability to accurately assess the truthfulness of that witness.”

The proposed legislation would give judges in federal and appellate courts — including the U.S. Supreme Court — the authority to decide case-by-case whether to allow cameras.

Only in rare situations, such as the 2000 presidential-recount case or the University of Michigan affirmative-action case, does the Supreme Court allow the arguments in their cases to be even audiotaped.

Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist opposes cameras in the courtroom and denied them access for the presidential-recount case. Justice Rehnquist has said that a majority of the high court’s justices also oppose cameras in the Supreme Court.

The legislation is also opposed by the Judicial Conference, a panel of appellate-court judges that sets policy for the federal courts.

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