The federal judiciary is renewing its opposition to cameras in courts legislation ahead of a Senate markup of a bipartisan bill that would allow appeals and district court judges to permit broadcasts of proceedings.
“The intimidating effect of cameras on litigants, witnesses, and jurors has a profoundly negative impact on the trial process,” Roslynn Mauskopf, director of the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts said in a letter to Senate Judiciary leaders on behalf of the judiciary’s policymaking arm, the Judicial Conference. As AO director, Mauskopf is secretary of the Judicial Conference.
The bill, the Sunshine in the Courtroom Act of 2021 (S. 818), is the latest iteration of bipartisan legislation that has been reintroduced in both chambers for years. The current bill is sponsored by Sens. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), Richard Durbin (D-Ill.), Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), John Cornyn (R-Texas), Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), and Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.).
This time around, the legislation comes as all federal appeals courts, including the Supreme Court, permitted live audio access to arguments during the pandemic, which has been well-received. Before that, two appeals courts regularly provided live audio. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit and the Ninth Circuit both permitted live access through a video feed.
While the Judicial Conference allows appeals courts to authorize camera access, Mauksopf said “it opposes legislation that would transfer such decisions to any individual judge in any court of appeals.” Cameras can intimidate defendants, can jeopardize privacy, and create security concerns for the court and its staff, she said.
Supporters of live video access to proceedings say it would make the judicial branch more transparent.
“Transparency brings accountability,” said Grassley in a May 2021 opinion article applauding a Minnesota state court judge’s decision to allow cameras to broadcast the murder trial of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin.
Although the conference is opposed to the bill, Mauskopf said “the Judiciary has learned a great deal about the benefits and risks of providing audio and video access during emergency situations” and is looking to the use of live audio in district courts.
She pointed to a pilot project announced in December 2020 in which district courts are testing live streaming audio in certain civil proceedings on YouTube.
The Senate Judiciary Committee will also markup another bipartisan bill to require the Supreme Court to broadcast of all of the its open sessions unless a majority of justices decide otherwise. That bill is the Cameras in the Courtroom Act (S.807). The Judicial Conference didn’t take a position on that bill.
Mauskopf said the Conference “does not speak for the Supreme Court and it would not be appropriate for the Judicial Conference to promulgate mandatory guidelines for them.”