Photo contest question: Why no cameras in federal court?

May 14, 2010

WestlawNext - manNow that WestlawNext goes where you do,  WestlawNext Mobile users have a chance to win big just for showing us where they’re using it.

We’re giving away nine iPod touches as prizes in our WestlawNext Mobile Photo Contest. And after we announced the contest a couple of weeks ago, we started wondering: Why it is that cameras still aren’t allowed in federal courts?

News media cameras have been allowed in state courts since the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1981 ruling in Chandler v. Florida, and since then, 48 states have adopted rules that allow at least some audio-video coverage of trials. But the Supreme Court’s ruling didn’t apply to federal courts (including the Supreme Court), and so cameras are still banned in those places – mainly because there aren’t any Supreme Court justices who want them there.

That could all change if the “Sunshine in the Courtroom” bill introduced by Sen. Chuck Grassley becomes law. “Our judicial system is one of the best kept secrets in the United States,” Grassley said. “Letting the sun shine in on federal courtrooms will give Americans an opportunity to better understand the judicial process.” His bill recently passed the Senate Judiciary Committee with bipartisan support.

However, the Supreme Court remains strongly against the idea, which may prove to be the ultimate roadblock. Even with the retirement of Justice David Souter – who in 1996 famously warned that cameras would roll into the Supreme Court “over my dead body” –  the other justices seem equally camera-shy. When asked about the issue in 2007, Chief Justice John Roberts Jr. recalled Souter’s “dead body” quote, and then quipped: “We all like Justice Souter.”