Editorial: It’s time for the federal bench to see the light on courtroom video

Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa joined Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota for a bill to put cameras in federal courtrooms.
Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa joined Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota for a bill to put cameras in federal courtrooms. Bloomberg

Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa and Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota recently introduced a bill designed to pull open the drapes in the nation’s federal courtrooms and let the sunshine in.

The measure, which Grassley has pushed before, would give federal courts the option of allowing television cameras to broadcast and record their proceedings.

It’s a step the federal judicial branch should have taken on its own two decades ago. Instead, an unfortunate combination of arrogance and tradition has conspired to keep the eyes of the public away from federal courtrooms. Congress and the president should rectify that.

Television cameras have operated inside state courtrooms for years. There have been a few problems, but generally the arrangement has worked perfectly well for everyone: prosecutors, defendants, plaintiffs, even judges.

Safeguards are built into most states’ procedures. Kansas and Missouri rules include a list of exceptions and regulations before the “privilege” of video recording is extended to media outlets. Other states rely on similar policies.

The need for restrictions on video recording of criminal trials is understandable. Forbidding filming jurors, for example, makes sense. Some witnesses could ask that the cameras remain turned off. Federal courts could easily adopt rules to protect sensitive testimony or juror privacy.

But there can be no excuse for barring cameras from federal appeals courts or the U.S. Supreme Court. There are no witnesses, only judges and attorneys. The public has an absolute right to hear and see what the parties have to say in a dispute of general interest.

Federal judges, including Supreme Court justices, have argued cameras would lead to showboating by lawyers. That fear is overblown, but even if it were real, that would be the lawyer’s problem, not the camera’s.

Some justices have complained that allowing cameras would lead television reporters to use excerpts, known as “soundbites,” of statements and arguments made in court. Yes, they would. It happens whenever a reporter covers any public body, from the city council to the U.S. Senate.

In the newspaper business, they’re called “quotes.” They’re used without a problem every hour of every day.

And cameras might actually have the opposite effect. Cable channels could carry the full hour of a Supreme Court argument, allowing the public to fully appreciate what both sides in a dispute have to say. Full arguments could be archived and made available online for those seeking additional information.

Even at the trial court level, cameras could help. The dispute over President Donald Trump’s travel order, for example, was argued in federal court. Americans should have been allowed to watch the proceedings.

Finally, some judges and lawyers say video recording equipment would disrupt the decorum of the courtroom. Wrong. High-quality video can now be captured on a device the size of a golf ball or on your phone. Audio recording of judicial proceedings is already routine.

Objection overruled.

Some federal courts — including Kansas and the eastern district of Missouritook part in a pilot program involving courtroom cameras and civil cases. Were there problems? Apparently not. Yet the Judicial Conference decided a year ago not to extend the program in either state.

It means the public will be less educated about the work of the judicial branch. That’s sad and unnecessary.

Congress should step in. The nation has waited far too long to see what its judges are doing.