A House committee, in a rebuke to Maryland's highest court, voted overwhelmingly today to ban cameras and tape recorders from criminal trials.
The 21-to-1 vote by the House Judiciary Committee comes just a few months after the Maryland Court of Appeals agreed to allow television, radio and newspaper photographers into state trial and appellate courts for an 18-month period that began Jan 1.
The committee decision, which followed harsh criticism by its members of the news media and the appeals court, also comes just a week after a Supreme Court ruling that allows criminal trials to be broadcast and photographed.
If approved by both chambers during this session, the bill will remove all cameras from criminal trials in Maryland as of June 1. Televised broadcasts, tape recordings and photographs will still be permitted in civil cases, such as a divorce proceeding or a malpractice suit, and in all appeals.
Del. Joseph Owens (D-Montgomery), chairman of the judiciary committee, said today he does not expect the bill to meet much opposition in either the House or the Senate when it comes up for a vote.
"I don't expect any problems," he said. "We haven't cut out the [court of appeals] experiment completely. We've just cut the more lurid ones, criminal cases at the trial level."
Although the appeals court agreed to allow cameras and tape recorders in state courtrooms, they also applied strict conditions that would allow defendants in criminal cases and either side in a civil case that does not involve government agencies to veto such coverage.
During today's committee meeting, almost all legislators expressed serious reservations about media coverage of criminal trials. "I don't know what purpose it serves [to permit cameras in criminal courtrooms] except for people who are nosy," said Del. Lena Lee (D-Baltimore City). "The news media haven't shown me they can practice self-restraint. They want the news in the most dramatic manner they can get it. [Broadcasting criminal trials] to me subverts justice."
Only one member of the committee, Del. Pauline Menes (D-Prince George's) dissented from the committee vote. "This has a potential for being a positive thing by allowing a better understanding of the court process," she said. "I think we should give the [appeals court] judges more time."