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Let judges decide if they want to try having cameras in their courtrooms.
Thursday, March 14, 2013
When talk turns to government transparency, legislative and executive records typically receive the most attention. Reporters and citizens speculate about what is contained in White House legal documents justifying drone attacks or what goes on when a town council meets behind closed doors.
The third branch of government deserves attention, too, especially during Sunshine Week. Open government is just as important in the judiciary as the other two branches of government.
We had modest hopes that the U.S. Supreme Court might finally move toward allowing cameras in the courtroom. The two most recent appointees, Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan, were on the record supporting the idea before confirmation. Now that their lifetime appointments are secure, they are having second thoughts.
A remedy, then, must come from another direction.
The Sunshine in the Courtroom Act, which has bipartisan support in Congress, would not pull back the drapes, but it would give federal judges the right to do so themselves for a while. Unlike past efforts to bring greater transparency to the courts, this bill would not force cameras in. Instead, judges could decide if they want them in their own courtrooms.
The bill assures essential protections for courtroom participants. For example, it prohibits jurors from being televised and would allow witnesses who are not party to a suit to have their images and voices obscured.
The act would expire in three years so that Congress could assess then what the effects were and whether to go forward with permanent requirements. We suspect they will find a lot to like. Experience in the many states that allow televised court proceedings has been positive.
If Americans could see laws being held up to constitutional scrutiny, they might develop a deeper understanding of the process. Too often coverage of the courts focuses on the social and political ramifications of a ruling, forgetting the important legal nuances that drive it. That will not stop so long as the judiciary remains hidden.
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