Let federal court proceedings be open to citizenry via TV - East Valley Tribune: Opinion

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Let federal court proceedings be open to citizenry via TV

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Posted: Sunday, June 1, 2003 11:12 pm

As riveting television, those endless announcements on public access channels likely have more allure. As entertainment, fill in the blank for the titles of those weekday afternoon oversimplified tribunals, “Judge . . . .” and you’ll have a much better time.

What federal courts often lack in drama they make up for in powerful decisions with a great impact on life in America. While all 50 states allow still and television cameras and recording devices for radio in their courtrooms, the federal judiciary’s proceedings may only be viewed by those who sit in their galleries in person.

U.S. Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, is again making a praiseworthy effort to open up federal courtrooms to cameras and other recording devices with his bill, S.554, which is headed to the full Senate after swift approval by the Judiciary Committee without amendment May 22.

The bill would allow each federal district or appellate court to “permit the photographing, electronic recording, broadcasting or televising to the public of court proceedings over which that judge presides." The measure also allows the National Judicial Conference the choice to draw up guidelines for judges to use to decide whether to allow such devices in their courtrooms.

Federal courts make decisions about our constitutional rights and about multi-million-dollar judgments for and against corporations. Federal juries heard the testimony and issued the verdicts in the Oklahoma City bombing trials, and will do so in future trials involving accused terrorists.

Experimental use of cameras and recording devices was conducted in federal courtrooms in the 1990s. They were proven to not be intrusive or disruptive, but open-government advocates failed to vigorously lobby for permanent status. The experimental period ended with a return to the current policy.

Americans were fascinated by the first-ever allowance of audio recordings of the proceedings of the U.S. Supreme Court in 2000 when the justices were called upon to decide the results of that year’s presidential election in Bush vs. Gore.

What was missing from the lack of video was quite evident: The expressions on the justices’ and the attorneys’ faces as they listened to argument and rejoinder that paints entirely new pictures upon the words.

Congress should end the federal government’s current status as the American judicial system’s last holdout in refusing citizens full access to its proceedings via still photography, radio and television. With access comes understanding, as well as a vital check by those citizens on the conduct of the third branch of government currrently afforded to a comparative few.

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