Statement On The Introduction Of The Sunshine In The Courtroom Act Of 2009

This week, the Nation celebrates the fifth annual Sunshine Week - a time when open government advocates raise their voices to renew the call for open and transparent government.   Our democracy works best when citizens know what their government is doing. There is no more appropriate time to recommit ourselves to defending the public’s right to know.

Today, I am pleased to join Senators Grassley and Schumer to reintroduce the Sunshine in the Courtroom Act of 2009. This bipartisan bill will improve access to Federal court proceedings for members of the public who are unable to travel to the courthouse. In the information age, providing the American people access to Federal courts is possible like never before. Not all Americans are able to invest the time and money in travelling to witness public courtroom proceedings.

I commend Senator Grassley for his leadership over the last decade to expand access to the courts. A bipartisan majority of the Senate Judiciary Committee voted to report this legislation in the last Congress, but further consideration stalled on the Senate floor. I hope our efforts to pass this legislation will be successful this year.

The Federal courts serve as a bulwark for the protection of individual rights and liberties, and the Supreme Court is often the final arbiter of Constitutional questions that have a profound effect on all Americans.  Allowing the public greater access to Federal courts will deepen Americans understanding of the work that goes on in the courts.  As a result, Americans can be better informed about how important judicial decisions are made. 

I have continually supported efforts in Congress to make our government more transparent and accessible.  During my more than three decades in the Senate, I have worked to make federal agencies more open and accountable to the public through a reinvigorated Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), and last year, the first major reforms to FOIA were enacted with the passage of the Leahy-Cornyn OPEN Government Act.  I have also supported efforts to make the work of Congress more open to the American people. Just this week, I introduced the OPEN FOIA Act, which would require Congress to openly and clearly state its intention to provide for statutory exemptions to FOIA in proposed legislation. The freedom of information is one of the cornerstones of our democracy. For more than four decades, FOIA has been among the most important Federal laws that protect the public’s right to know.

The work of the Federal judiciary is also open to the public.  Proceedings in Federal courtrooms around this country are open to the public, and jurists publish extensive opinions explaining the reasons for their judgments and decisions.  Nevertheless, more can and must be done to increase access to the Federal courts. All 50 states currently allow some form of audio or video coverage of court proceedings, but the Federal courts lag behind.  The legislation we introduce today simply extends this tradition of openness to the Federal level.

Although this bill permits presiding appellate and district court judges to allow cameras in most public Federal court proceedings, it does not require that they do so.  An exception is carved out for instances where a camera would violate the due process rights of an involved party. At the same time, the bill protects non-party witnesses by giving them the right to have their voices and images obscured during their testimony.  I believe these protections strike the proper balance between security needs and the protection of personal privacy, while at the same time ensuring the public will always have a right to know what their government is doing.  

Finally, the bill authorizes the Judicial Conference of the United States to issue advisory guidelines for use by presiding judges in determining the management and administration of photographing, recording, broadcasting, or televising the proceedings.  

In 1994, the Judicial Conference concluded that it was not the right time to permit cameras in the Federal courts, and rejected a recommendation of the Court Administration and Case Management Committee to authorize the use of cameras in Federal civil trial and appellate courts.  A majority of the Conference was concerned about the intimidating effect of cameras on some witnesses and jurors.

I understand that the Judicial Conference remains opposed to cameras in the Federal courts, and I am sensitive to the Conference’s concerns. But this legislation grants the presiding judge the authority to evaluate the effect of a camera on particular proceedings and witnesses, and decide accordingly on whether to permit the camera into the courtroom. A blanket prohibition on cameras is an unnecessary limitation on the discretion of the presiding judge.

This legislation is an important step towards making the work of the Federal judiciary more widely available for public scrutiny.  I hope all Senators will join us in bringing more transparency to the Federal courts.

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