Grassley Legislation to Promote Greater Public Access to Federal Courtrooms Clears Committee
WASHINGTON – Legislation introduced by Chuck Grassley to allow federal trial and appellate judges to permit cameras in the courtroom has passed the Senate Judiciary Committee. Grassley, along with Senator Charles Schumer of New York, have led efforts over the last several years to ensure the sun shines in on the federal courts. The bill has broad bi-partisan support and has passed the Judiciary Committee several times. The legislation has the support of the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Patrick Leahy of Vermont.
“Our judicial system is one of the best kept secrets in the United States. Letting the sun shine in on federal courtrooms will give Americans an opportunity to better understand the judicial process. This bill is the best way to maintain confidence and accountability in the judicial system and help judges do a better job,” Grassley said. “Cameras in our federal courts will be a tremendous learning tool for the American people and with the safeguards in place we have really good bill to help bring our courts into the 21st century.”
Grassley said that states, including Iowa, have had great success in allowing the sun to shine on the court system. Grassley also noted that the bill has safeguards in place to protect vulnerable witnesses, to exclude jurors from broadcast, and to allow a judge to use his or her discretion in determining whether to allow cameras in the courtroom.
During the confirmation hearings for the three most recent Supreme Court Justice nominees, Grassley has asked the nominees about their support for allowing cameras in court proceedings. The nominees indicated that they would consider having cameras in the Court. Grassley expects to ask the President’s next nominee as well.
The bipartisan “Sunshine in the Courtroom” bill would allow the chief judge of federal trial appellate courts to permit cameras in their courtrooms. The bill would also direct the Judicial Conference, the principal policy-making entity for the federal courts, to draft nonbinding guidelines that judges can refer to in making a decision pertaining to the coverage of a particular case. It also instructs the Judicial Conference to issue mandatory guidelines for obscuring vulnerable witnesses such as undercover officers, victims of crime, and their families.
Forty-eight states currently permit some form of audio-video coverage in their courtrooms and at least 37 directly televise trials. Studies and surveys conducted in many of those states have confirmed that electronic media coverage of trials boosts public understanding of the court system without interfering with court proceedings. Fifteen states have conducted studies aimed specifically at the educational benefits that are derived from camera access to courtrooms. They all determined that camera coverage contributes to greater public understanding of the judicial system.
In order to provide a mechanism for Congress to study the effects of this legislation on our judiciary before making this change permanent, a three-year sunset provision is included in the bill.
The “Sunshine in the Courtroom” bill does not require a federal judge in a federal court to allow camera access to judicial proceedings. The bill gives federal judges the discretion to allow cameras or other electronic media access if they see fit. The bill also protects the privacy and safety of non-party witnesses by giving them the right to have their faces and voices obscured.