Grassley, Schumer, Leahy Introduce Sunshine In The Courtroom Act

WASHINGTON (Friday, Feb. 18, 2011) – Senators Chuck Grassley of Iowa and Charles Schumer of New York, have introduced legislation to allow federal trial and appellate judges to permit cameras in the courtroom.  The senators are also joined by the Chairman of the Judiciary Committee, Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont.  The bill has broad bipartisan support and has passed the Judiciary Committee several times.  The other cosponsors of the legislation are Judiciary Committee members John Cornyn of Texas, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, Dick Durbin of Illinois, and Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota.

“The Judicial Branch of our federal government is a mystery to many Americans.  Cameras in courtrooms would help lift the veil of secrecy and contribute to greater public understanding of the judicial system,” Grassley said.  “The bill goes to the heart of an open, transparent government and is based upon the core beliefs of the Constitution’s Founding Fathers about the judiciary.  Allowing cameras in federal courtrooms would help maintain confidence and accountability in the system.”

“This is a bill whose time has come. Televising our court proceedings won’t politicize them, it will make them more transparent. This is a healthy step towards opening up government that keeps with the Founders’ vision of a participatory democracy,” Schumer said.

“Our democracy works best when Americans have ready access to their government,” said Leahy.  “Technology can allow public sessions of the federal judiciary to be available to everyone, including people who are unable to travel to the courthouse.  To truly open our government, we should allow all Americans to witness justice in action.  I am a longtime supporter of the Sunshine in the Courtroom Act, and I am pleased to join Ranking Member Grassley to introduce this legislation today.”

The bipartisan “Sunshine in the Courtroom” bill would allow the chief judge of federal trial appellate courts to permit cameras in their courtrooms.  The bill would also direct the Judicial Conference, the principal policy-making entity for the federal courts, to draft nonbinding guidelines that judges can refer to in making a decision pertaining to the coverage of a particular case.  It also instructs the Judicial Conference to issue mandatory guidelines for obscuring vulnerable witnesses such as undercover officers, victims of crime, and their families. 

The senators noted that the bill has safeguards in place to protect witnesses, to exclude jurors from broadcast, and to allow a judge to use his or her discretion in determining whether to allow cameras in the courtroom. 

Studies and surveys conducted in many states which permit some form of audio-video coverage in their courtrooms have confirmed that electronic media coverage of trials boosts public understanding of the court system without interfering with court proceedings. 

In order to provide a mechanism for Congress to study the effects of this legislation on our judiciary before making this change permanent, a three-year sunset provision is included in the bill.

The “Sunshine in the Courtroom” bill does not require a federal judge in a federal court to allow camera access to judicial proceedings.  The bill gives federal judges the discretion to allow cameras or other electronic media access if they see fit.  The bill also protects the privacy and safety of non-party witnesses by giving them the right to have their faces and voices obscured.

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