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Tue., Dec. 28, 2010

Editorial: Camera-shy federal court should take the plunge

In the two decades during which some members of Congress have tried – with futility – to allow cameras in federal courts, the technology of news reporting has evolved at a dizzying pace.

Yet the courts themselves have clung to a policy that dates to the flashbulb-popping days of 1946. For the most part, cameras and electronic devices are prohibited in all federal trials and most appellate proceedings. And while modern mechanisms have grown smaller and less intrusive, the rule has been expanded to cover them. Last month, a judge in Georgia forbade a reporter from tweeting during the trial of a Columbus lawyer charged with laundering drug money. Just another form of broadcasting, under the judge’s rule.

Thus, the branch of government that’s done a reasonably good job of protecting the public’s right to keep an eye on legislators, governors and presidents has kept itself beyond the reach of the most immediate and, at times, most accurate means of informing the people about government’s activities.

There is a modest breakthrough in the works, however. A pilot project authorized under a 1996 resolution by the Judicial Conference of the United States permits limited televising of civil trials and appellate arguments. The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which includes Washington, is one of only two circuits willing to give telecasts a try. Thus, as the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press explained in an article printed in “The Washington Newspaper,” a high-profile trial involving California’s ban on same-sex marriages could not be aired, but the arguments on appeal could. And it was, earlier this month.

The issue shouldn’t be this difficult. Cameras have been permitted – usually at the judge’s discretion – in uncounted state trials. The Washington state Supreme Court’s sessions are routinely televised with no bruising suffered by justice.

It’s past time for federal courts to follow suit, especially as the technology of disseminating information expands more deeply into websites and Twitter and other social media. Too many of the arguments for prohibiting cameras could as easily be applied to print reporters or even bloggers. (One judge feared that a citizen with a legitimate civil complaint might refrain from suing, lest accusations against him be aired on television.)

The California marriage case wasn’t the first 9th Circuit case to be televised, and logic would suggest that if the courts are going to approve pilot projects like this one, the Judicial Conference’s heretofore rigid objection to cameras may yet be overcome.

Clearly Congress hasn’t had any success in 20 years of trying. Besides, legitimate questions exist, under the separation of powers doctrine, as to whether Congress can force the courts to let the cameras in.

This is a change that can and should come from the courts themselves. Almost all court proceedings are open to the public – if you can be there in person. Why not watch from your living room couch?

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