Vol. 13, No. 5, Pg. 24. Cameras in courtrooms: the lens of the public eye on our system of justice.

Author:By Jennifer J. Miller

South Carolina Lawyer


Vol. 13, No. 5, Pg. 24.

Cameras in courtrooms: the lens of the public eye on our system of justice

24The results of a USA Today/CNN/Gallup Poll released January 15, 2002, showed that 55 percent of Americans believe that the trial of Zacarias Moussaui, the man charged with being a part of the group of terrorists who planned the September 11 terrorist attacks, should not be broadcast live on television, while 42 percent believe it should be broadcast live.Cameras in courtrooms: the lens of the public eye on our system of justiceBy Jennifer J. MillerOn January 18, U.S. District Court Judge Leonie Brinkema denied Court TV's request to televise the proceedings. Court TV, joined by Moussaui, CNN and other media organizations, argued the unconstitutionality of Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure 53, which bans cameras and audio broadcasting from federal criminal trials. The U.S. Department of Justice argued that televised proceedings would influence jurors, distract witnesses and undermine security.

26According to the Washington Post, when Judge Brinkema heard the matter, she noted, "You are asking the court to declare unconstitutional a Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure that has been enacted by the Judicial Conference of the United States, approved by the Supreme Court and the United States Congress. One does not take that job lightly." She also expressed concern for the security of trial participants. "A permanent photographic image of ... jurors, [and] witnesses ...[is] out there forever in the public domain," she said.

The Fourth Circuit has not ruled on electronic coverage of proceedings, and it seems likely that Judge Brinkema's decision will be appealed. Eleven of 13 federal circuits, including the Fourth, havebanned electronic coverage from district courts, when given discretion by the Judicial Conference to make that decision in 1996.

On November 27, 2000, the Supreme Court considered the issue of allowing cameras in its own courtroom. Chief Justice Rehnquist denied a request by C-Span to cover the December 1, 2000 argument in the Florida election case. "A majority of the court remains of the view that we should adhere to our present practice of allowing public attendance and print media coverage of argument sessions but not allow camera or audio coverage," he said. Rather than allow camera or audio coverage, the Court would provide an expedited transcript to the media the day of the argument.

Other members of the Court have also vocally opposed camera and audio coverage of their proceedings. In 1996, Justice David Souter testified before a House Appropriations subcommittee, "I think the case is so strong that I can tell you the day you see a camera come into our courtroom, it's going to roll over my dead body." He explained that camera coverage had restricted his questions from the bench in New Hampshire because he worried about being taken out of context with a sound bite on the evening news.

In spite of these misgivings, on the day of the argument, December 1, 2000, the Chief Justice released an audiotape immediately after the argument, for the first time in the Court's history. This allowed the television and radio networks immediately to broadcast the proceedings in their entirety to tens of millions of concerned Americans observing their system of government function under extreme stress. "It was very unusual for the Court to release a tape of the proceedings immediately," said Wallace K. Lightsey, a partner with Wyche Burgess Freeman & Parham in Greenville, who clerked for Chief Justice Burger.

According to the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts, the...

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