Cameras In Courtrooms Remain Volatile Topic

Among the arguments for cameras in the courtroom, one comes out of left field: instant replay. Presumably, this reason is not widely shared. Even baseball struggles with the topic. But buried inside a congressional hearing in 2007, Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-Texas) told how as a judge presiding over a state case in Texas, Court TV provided a critical second look. During the broadcast, a viewer picked up a witness pilfering a computer disc with important information.

The defense attorney got word of it and told the judge. The parties went to Court TV's editing room, consulted the videotape and indeed confirmed the theft.

The benefit of instant replay aside, it is tough to make an argument against allowing cameras in the courtroom. Any survey would show robust public support.

And yet, opponents make a compelling case. Among the reasons are TMZ, snarky blogs and the 24/7 media crush. Trial video could be spliced and cut into all kinds of bites that might be used for unfair or tawdry purposes. Also, high-profile individuals or corporations testifying, while trying to win the case, would also be mindful of the court of public opinion, a factor that has no place in a trial.



Once again, the issue of cameras in the courtroom has made its way to Congress. A bipartisan group of senators introduced legislation -- the "Sunshine in the Courtroom" bill -- that would allow cameras in federal courtrooms, including the Supreme Court.

Cameras have been allowed in state courts for years. Remember something involving a former football player in California?

The Senate bill won't pass by next month, which could allow for live streaming of the trial involving Barry Bonds and steroid use. Up next, would be a steroids-related trial with Roger Clemens this summer. Before that, a retrial alleging former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich engaged in widespread corruption is scheduled. Then, there is the matter of the Bernie Madoff bankruptcy case.

ESPN would welcome the chance for gavel-to-gavel coverage of the Bonds and Clemens cases. CNN and other news channels would be on the Blagojevich matter. And CNBC would be all over Madoff.

Needless to say, viewer interest would soar. Hall of Fame voters might gain needed insight into whether Bonds or Clemens should be admitted. What the public won't see is testimony of a Bonds ex-girlfriend saying the slugger told her he did steroids, or of Clemens' former buddy, Andy Pettite, testifying against him. Investors screwed by Madoff will again be out of luck.

Of course, print reporters and the TV legal commentators are allowed to take notebooks into the court and cover the trials. And transcripts are available. The public has to rely on a filter. And even the court documents don't provide a sense of body language and behaviors.

Two federal circuit courts of appeal do allow cameras, but those cases don't involve witnesses or juries. The oral arguments tend to be esoteric. Nonetheless, the topics broadcast by C-Span have covered wiretapping and late-term abortions.

It should be mentioned that the pending "Sunshine" bill before Congress allows a judge to block cameras in her court if she believes it would impact the right to a fair trial. In no case, would cameras focus on the jury.

Why did the O.J. case become a national farce and yet Bonds or Clemens detractors won't be able to watch their days in court? Again, the state courts -- where O.J. was tried -- have widely allowed coverage of trials, which fueled Court TV until its demise. That's one of the key arguments courtroom-camera advocates at the federal level make. They say research shows no evidence that the broadcasting has negatively impacted proceedings or impaired justice being served.

In turn, they contend transparency has led to the reverse. The public can evaluate the sagacity of judges and the court system, while making their own judgments. An open court system is a cornerstone of our democracy.

If the Supreme Court has such a major impact on American life, shouldn't the public have the chance to evaluate its workings? Every moment of what happens on the House and Senate floor is on C-Span. (Back during the 2000 case involving the contested Gore-Bush election, the Supreme Court did release audio tapes of its proceedings.)

What is clear is the taint of the O.J. case plays a significant role in the federal judiciary preventing trial broadcasting. "I think that part of it is the O.J. Simpson case completely soured the federal bench on this issue," testified federal Judge Nancy Gertner at the 2007 hearing, who favors the cameras.

Judge Gertner is well-respected, but off-base on this judgment. The Simpson case was decided in 1994 in an entirely different media landscape. Two 24/7 news channels did not exist, and the Internet had not exploded. There was no TMZ, no bloggers able to cut up video to advance their opinions.

Further, it is hard to believe cameras don't impact testimony in the high-profile cases that are at the heart of the debate -- notably with witnesses, who are not facing jail time or huge fines, but have an agenda. A chance to appear before a national audience can be a coup. A witness eager for a reality TV show has a platform. In business, issues about preserving reputations and advancing a cause arise.

Congress and public advocates should be careful what they wish for. Then again, it is hard to deny how neat it would be to watch Bonds on the stand.

1 comment about "Cameras In Courtrooms Remain Volatile Topic".
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  1. Eva Carafa from Syracuse University, February 24, 2011 at 3:47 p.m.

    Cameras may impact the outside world, but jurors are already banned from media surrounding a trial, which is already public. There is more to be gained from shining a light on the trial process. When did we get so scared of a free press, anyway?

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