Sketching the courtroom

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High-profile cases playing out in federal court are prosecuted on behalf of the American public, but the public has been largely barred from watching them. In Boston, reporters mobbed the trial of Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev but can’t take photos or videos inside the courtroom. The same was true of the New York trial and conviction last month of Khaled Al-Fawwaz for conspiracy in the 1998 bombings of two U.S. embassies in Africa. In both cases, the public had to rely on the drawings of courtroom artists. Some are calling on the courts to reconsider the camera ban. – AP

Q: Have cameras always been banned from federal courts?

A: Yes, though there have been attempts to soften the prohibitions. The first ban was adopted in 1946, stating the “court must not permit the taking of photographs in the courtroom during judicial proceedings or the broadcasting of judicial proceedings.” In 1991, a three-year pilot program to allow cameras was launched in a handful of federal courts, although the ban ultimately remained in effect. Another pilot program was launched in 2011 in 14 federal trial courts with videos of some civil cases posted online. That program is set to conclude in July with recommendations expected next year.


Q: Why ban cameras in federal courtrooms?

A: Those who favor banning cameras in federal courts point to a number of reasons — from protecting the privacy of witnesses and jurors to safeguarding the integrity of the judicial system. Opponents also worry that allowing the recording and broadcasting of images from inside courtrooms could turn trials into public spectacles. They point to high-profile trials in state courts — which all allow varying degrees of camera access. Perhaps the most notorious was the 1995 murder trial in California of O.J. Simpson, which turned lawyers, witnesses and the presiding judge into TV and tabloid celebrities.


Q: Given those drawbacks, why push to open federal courtrooms to cameras?

A: Supporters say cameras serve a critical civic function by allowing the public to view trials and witness the judicial process in action. They say public interest in that process is even keener when the crime, like the Boston Marathon bombing, shocked an entire city with three killed, hundreds injured and thousands rattled. In those cases, supporters say, the public should be able to see the trial even without nabbing one of the few open seats in the courtroom.


Q: Are there any efforts to allow cameras in federal courts?

A: A number of bills have been filed in Congress aimed at loosening restrictions on cameras. A Senate bill sponsored by Iowa Republican Chuck Grassley and co-sponsored by eight Republicans and Democrats would let the presiding judge in all federal courts — including the Supreme Court — allow cameras while barring coverage of private conversations among clients, lawyers and the judge. A House bill would require the Supreme Court to allow television coverage of open sessions unless the justices decide it would violate due process rights.


Q: How likely is it that any of the bills will become law?

A: Given all the other pressing matters facing Washington — and the fact that some of the bills have been filed year after year — it’s unclear whether any has the momentum to reach President Barack Obama’s desk and be signed into law.


Q: What keeps the federal court, especially the Supreme Court, from deciding on its own to allow cameras?

A: That’s up to the judges. Two of the nine Supreme Court justices — Elena Kagan and Sonia Sotomayor — appeared warm to the idea. During her 2009 confirmation hearings, Sotomayor told lawmakers she had a positive experience with cameras while Kagan said that when she argued cases before the court as solicitor general, she wanted the public to see how well prepared the justices were. The two have since said allowing cameras might lead to grandstanding that could change the nature of the court.