WASHINGTON – Senator Chuck Grassley of Iowa, Chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, today introduced bipartisan legislation to improve public access to the federal judiciary by granting judges the ability to allow cameras in federal courtrooms. The Sunshine in the Courtroom Act permits media coverage of trial and appellate cases to improve public access to the federal judiciary’s processes and procedures while installing appropriate safeguards to protect the privacy of witnesses and jurors and ensuring the due process protections remain intact.
“Our federal court system is a beacon of justice and fairness, and the implications of its decisions have resonated throughout American history. Yet, many Americans may never be able to witness this process firsthand. Video coverage of our courts can be a great learning tool for the American people and will contribute to a better understanding of and appreciation for the American judicial system. As C-SPAN’s coverage of the House and Senate has led to greater transparency of the legislative branch of government, opening up our federal courts to the public can also lead to improved transparency and accountability in the judiciary,” Grassley said.
This bill grants the presiding judge in all federal courts, including the Supreme Court, the discretion to allow cameras in the courtroom while protecting the identities of witnesses and jurors when necessary or upon request. It also prohibits media coverage of private conversations between clients and counsel, between opposing attorneys, and between counsel and the presiding judge. The bill contains a three-year sunset provision, requiring Congress to evaluate how media access is impacting the judiciary.
All 50 states currently allow some form of audio/video coverage of court proceedings under a variety of rules and conditions, however federal court rules vary by district. Many federal courts, including the Supreme Court, prohibit the use live media coverage. Public scrutiny of federal court proceedings will produce greater accountability and transparency of the judiciary system.
Grassley is also the lead cosponsor of separate legislation requiring television camera access in U.S. Supreme Court oral argument proceedings. The bills coincide with Sunshine Week, a time dedicated to raising awareness of the importance of transparency in government.
Grassley’s bill was introduced with Senator Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y), who has joined Grassley in this effort since 1999. It is also cosponsored by senators John Cornyn (R-Texas), Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), Richard Durbin (D-Ill.), Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), Ed Markey (D-Mass.) and Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.).
Below is text of Grassley’s statement for the Congressional Record regarding his Sunshine in the Courtroom Act:
This week is Sunshine Week, when we affirm the public’s right to know how their government is run. Sunshine Week, which began as Sunshine Sunday in 2002, emphasizes the importance of transparency and accountability in a government of the people, by the people, and for the people. In the spirit of government transparency, we are pleased to introduce the Sunshine in the Courtroom Act of 2015. This important piece of bipartisan legislation furthers the public’s access to court proceedings by permitting federal judges at all federal court levels to open their courtrooms to television cameras and radio broadcasts.
Openness in our courts improves the public’s understanding of what happens inside our courts. Our judicial system remains a mystery to too many people across the country. That doesn’t need to continue. Letting the sun shine in on federal courtrooms will give Americans an opportunity to better understand the judicial process. Courts are the bedrock of the American justice system. Granting the public greater access to an already public proceeding will inspire greater faith in and appreciation for our judges who pledge equal and impartial justice for all.
For decades, states such as my home state of Iowa have allowed cameras in their courtrooms with great results. As a matter of fact, all 50 states and the District of Columbia now allow some news coverage of proceedings.
The bill I’m introducing today, along with Senator Schumer and a number of cosponsors from both sides of the aisle, including Judiciary Committee Ranking Member Leahy, will greatly improve public access to federal courts by letting federal judges open their courtrooms to television cameras and other forms of electronic media.
The Sunshine in the Courtroom Act is full of provisions that ensure that the introduction of cameras and other broadcasting devices into courtrooms goes as smoothly as it has at the state level. First, the presence of the cameras in federal trial and appellate courts is at the sole discretion of the judges—it is not mandatory. The bill also provides a mechanism for Congress to study the effects of this legislation on our judiciary before making this change permanent through a three-year sunset provision. The bill protects the privacy and safety of non-party witnesses by giving them the right to have their faces and voices obscured. The bill prohibits the televising of jurors. Finally, it includes a provision to protect the due process rights of each party.
Mr. President, we need to open the doors and let the light shine in on the Federal Judiciary. This bill improves public access to and therefore understanding of our federal courts. It has safety provisions to ensure that the cameras won’t interfere with the proceedings or with the safety or due process of anyone involved in the cases. Our states have allowed news coverage of their courtrooms for decades. It’s time we join them.
Mr. President, I ask unanimous consent that the text of this bill be printed in the Record.