Leahy Joins Effort to Put Cameras in Courtroom

Posted January 30, 2007 at 6:58pm

A bipartisan collection of Senators are trying once again to increase television access in the Supreme Court and other federal courtrooms, with sponsorship coming from both parties’ leaders on the Judiciary Committee.

Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) is a co-sponsor of a bill that would give federal trial and appellate judges the sole discretion to decide whether to allow proceedings to be televised.

On the Republican side, Judiciary ranking member Arlen Specter (Pa.) reintroduced legislation Monday that would require the Supreme Court to permit television coverage of open proceedings, unless a majority of the justices determine the due process rights of a litigant could be violated.

“This is quite an area of interest to Chairman Leahy,” spokeswoman Tracy Schmaler said, but added that she did not know if or when Leahy would take either bill up in committee.

Specter’s bill would allow average Americans to see how the Supreme Court makes its decisions, allowing them to be better equipped to understand the judiciary system, Specter said in a release.

“The Supreme Court makes pronouncements on Constitutional and federal law that have direct impacts on the rights of Americans,” Specter said. “Those rights would be substantially enhanced by televising the oral arguments of the Court.”

Sens. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), Russ Feingold (D-Wis.) and John Cornyn (R-Texas) have signed on as co-sponsors of Specter’s legislation.

On Jan. 22, Grassley and Schumer introduced the Sunshine in the Courtroom Act of 2007, the bill co-sponsored by Leahy. The measure would help the public maintain confidence and better understand the nation’s court system, the Senators said in a joint statement released last week.

“Sen. Grassley believes that cameras have worked very well in state courts and doesn’t see any reason why they shouldn’t be allowed in federal courts,” said Beth Levine, a Grassley spokeswoman.

While the bills maintain support from party leaders, there is some opposition from the Judicial Conference, the official administrative body for federal courts.

Since 1996, the conference officially has opposed the use of electronic media in federal trial courts but has left it up to federal appellate courts to decide for themselves whether to allow cameras, said Dick Carelli, a spokesman for the organizaion.

“There’s a fear that witnesses and/or jurors would be intimidated,” Carelli said of the trial courts. “That factor doesn’t exist in the appellate courts.”

While the conference has not dealt with the issue in more than a decade, “it’s certainly not outside the realm of possibility” that it could be brought up again, Carelli said.

Specter has pushed for cameras in the Supreme Court before.

As then-chairman of Judiciary in 2005, he sponsored a hearing on the matter. Specter also pushed the issue during confirmation hearings for Chief Justice John Roberts and Associate Justice Samuel Alito. Roberts said he would keep on open mind in regard to cameras, while Alito said as a judge in the 3rd Circuit he voted to allow televised court proceedings.

Since Roberts became chief justice, the Supreme Court has allowed for some increased use of electronic media.

C-SPAN, a longtime advocate for televised proceedings of Supreme Court hearings, requested early audio release of several court activities in 2006. While many were denied, the court did allow tapes to be released early in a few cases, including Hamdan v. Rumsfeld, which dealt with the treatment of prisoners in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and Gonzales v. Planned Parenthood, an abortion case.

C-SPAN has long volunteered to televise court proceedings unedited, without commentary and in their entirety, according to a network spokeswoman.