Among the other hot potatoes at its annual meeting this week in Chicago, the American Bar Association will be debating whether the nation's courtrooms should be opened up to cameras.
As with so much that the ABA does, its decision on this issue will have no direct effect on any proceeding anywhere. But it should carry a lot of clout with the people who can say whether press photographers -- and more significantly, television camera operators -- will have greater access to covering trials.
A lot of business cases with immediate impact on the public -- allegations of consumer fraud, environmental damage, bribery, job discrimination, price fixing -- may become routine fare on the evening TV news. And any provision for cameras would almost surely allow radio broadcasts of trials or trial excerpts.
Actually, in most of the United States, cameras are allowed in courtrooms. Forty-five states allow at least some sort of televised coverage of court proceedings. But the old worries -- that television crews will be distracting, that lawyers and witnesses will play to the cameras rather than the judge and jury -- have kept all photographic and electronic recording out of federal courts.
As recently as last September, a special committee of the U.S. Judicial Conference set up exclusively to study the matter recommended that the current ban be continued. Nonetheless, a change is in the wind.
It is the Wisconsin lawyers who are being most aggressive in pushing for a change in the current situation, which does not allow a federal judge to admit cameras even if he or she thinks it would be in the public interest to do so.
Last year Barbara B. Crabb, chief judge of the U.S. District Court in Madison, came to just that conclusion about a dispute over Chippewa Indiana hunting and fishing rights in eastern Wisconsin. She asked the Judicial Conference committee for permission to let local television stations cover the proceeding on an experimental basis, and was turned down flat.
That led the Wisconsin bar to propose the resolution on which the ABA House of Delegates will vote later this week, asking federal judges to adopt new rules that would allow broadcast coverage of trials.
In fact, the House of Delegates was slated to have before it three separate proposals to change the ABA's current policy. That policy says there is nothing inherently wrong with cameras in the courtroom, leaving it up to the judges to set specific rules.
The proposed changes, however, suggest that as a general rule all court proceedings should be open to broadcasters and photographers, who should be excluded only if one of the parties objects or the judge believes the circumstances would make the coverage particularly intrusive.
The proposed changes in the Criminal Justice Standards, however, have been pulled from the House of Delegates agenda.
And the proposed revisions in the Code of Judicial Conduct drop all references to the broadcast of trials, deciding that it is merely an administrative matter, not one of ethics.
There has been pressure on Wisconsin to withdraw its proposal, too, to give the U.S. Judicial Conference another chance to consider the issue at its meeting next month. But as of now it looks as though the Wisconsin bar will press ahead.
Rep. Robert Kastenmeier (D-Wis.), who chairs the House Judiciary subcommittee that oversees federal courts, is also goading the judges who make up the Judicial Conference to change their stand. "The time has come," he told the conference committee in a relatively blunt four-page letter sent in May.
American Lawyer and Time Warner Inc. have teamed up for a more ambitious project scheduled to begin in 1991: an around-the-clock cable channel that will broadcast trials as they happen around the country.
Anchored by former CBS law correspondent Fred Graham, the American Trial Network will borrow techniques from sportscasting: a stable of practicing lawyers will sit in -- in three-hour stints -- giving commentary on how the case is proceeding, why the trial lawyers are using particular techniques and whether the latest testimony helped plaintiff or defendant. The backers are just itching to be able to include federal cases.
Daniel B. Moskowitz is a Washington editor for Business Week Newsletters.