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Allow cameras in federal courts

A promising new effort is underway to provide the public with a truer understanding of what happens in courtrooms. Not hyped-up drama or silly Judge Judy stuff, but actual cases with real-life procedures, outcomes and consequences.

U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minnesota, a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, and Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, have introduced bipartisan legislation to allow cameras in federal courtrooms.

As they noted in a news release announcing the legislation this week, Klobuchar and Grassley said the goal is to expand the public's window into federal court processes and procedures.

The Sunshine in the Courtroom Act allows judges to permit media coverage of trial and appellate cases while ensuring appropriate due process safeguards and privacy protections for witnesses and jurors remain intact.

"Today, you can watch what's happening on the Senate floor on C-SPAN or city council meetings on Facebook Live, but you can't see the proceedings of a federal courtroom on TV. That doesn't make sense, especially when the decisions made in those courtrooms seriously affect the lives of everyday Americans," said Klobuchar. "By allowing cameras in federal courtrooms, our bipartisan bill will help increase transparency and boost public confidence in our democracy."

The act contains safeguards that would prevent the proceedings from turning into a media circus. The legislation 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.

Minnesota enacted new cameras-in-the courtroom rules in August 2015 but it's been a slow process. The new policy removes some long-established restrictions on cameras and other video and audio recording devices but their usage is still subject to several limitations. Cameras are prohibited in sexual abuse and family court cases, juvenile proceedings, witness testimony, and any proceedings in which a jury is present. As a result, most court coverage has been limited to sentencing and other post-trial proceedings and appeals.

The Minnesota Supreme Court will review the policy next year.

Federal court rules, meanwhile, vary by district. Many federal courts, including the U.S. Supreme Court, prohibit the use of live media coverage.

It's time for that to change. A new survey from C-SPAN bears that out. Three out of four Americans say the U.S. Supreme Court should allow TV coverage of its oral arguments.

Fears that cameras will interfere with the judicial process or infringe on the rights of the accused have proven to be unfounded.

"In experiment after experiment in federal courts across the country, cameras have proved to be compatible with the process of justice," said Mike Cavender, executive director of the Radio Television Digital News Association in a news release this week. "Allowing the public to observe proceedings of the Supreme Court is long overdue."

Klobuchar and Grassley's bill has received bipartisan support—as it should. Courtrooms are a public forum. Cameras, placed discretely and unobtrusively, would allow the public to gain more insights into the legal process, dispelling the myths and preconceived notions that distort what actually takes place.