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The bipartisan 'Sunshine in the Courtroom Act' would open federal courts to the public scrutiny of news cameras

Last month, the United States Supreme Court concluded an extraordinary term that teemed with momentous decisions, from striking down criminal sodomy laws to embracing affirmative action in law school admissions.

Yet at any one time, fewer than 350 Americans could watch and listen as the justices issued those historic rulings in a courtroom that sets aside just 200 seats for the public. Like almost every other federal court, the Supreme Court prohibits videotaping or still photo-graphy of its sessions.

In an era when federal judges issue rulings that in their impact often rival the lawmaking of any legislature in the land, it is increasingly absurd that their proceedings should remain off-limits to the same wider public scrutiny that news cameras have brought to courts in 48 states. Now that Congress is back from its Fourth of July recess, the Senate has the opportunity to bring some much-needed transparency into the federal courts.

S. 554, the "Sunshine in the Courtroom Act," is a sensible proposal sponsored by Sens. Charles Grassley (R.-Iowa) and Charles Schumer (D.- N.Y.) that would give individual federal trial and appellate judges the discretion to permit cameras in their courtrooms -- and to protect, with electronic masking, the privacy and safety of witnesses in those rare instances when it is necessary.

Similar proposals in 1999 and 2001 died aborning in Congress, but in May the Judiciary Committee passed this bill on to the Senate floor with a lopsided 14-4 vote. The committee even took action to blunt expected opposition from the Judicial Conference, the policy-making body for federal courts, by amending the language of the act to a separate bill that increases pay for the judiciary -- a cause the self- styled Third Branch loves even more than it loathes cameras in courthouses.

Sadly, the bill is unlikely to turn the hearts of Supreme Court justices. In 1994, an independent panel overseeing a test in federal courthouses found the unobtrusive cameras did not disrupt proceedings, intimidate witnesses or encourage attorney grandstanding, yet Chief Justice William Rehnquist cancelled the program as if it were Fox's "Married By America." A couple of years later, Justice David Souter sounded his famous cri de coeur on the issue: "The day you see a camera come into our courtroom, it's going to roll over my dead body." And just this spring, Justice Antonin Scalia barred television cameras from his appearance at the City Club of Cleveland, where, ironically, he received the Citadel of Free Speech Award.

Congress should swiftly pass the "Sunshine in the Courtroom Act," and President Bush should sign it into law -- but there's an even greater change necessary if federal courts are to be truly open and accountable: Those at the very top of the judiciary must temper their irrational aversion to courtroom cameras.

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Title Annotation:a discussion of the 'Sunshine in the Courtroom Act'
Comment:SUNNIER DAYS IN COURT.(a discussion of the 'Sunshine in the Courtroom Act')
Publication:Editor & Publisher
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jul 14, 2003
Previous Article:Getting It Right.
Next Article:Can't We All Just Get Along?

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