A top Justice Department official said yesterday that he favors letting television cameras into the Supreme Court and the federal appellate courts to cover oral argument.
This would let the public "participate in the administration of justice," Benjamin R. Civiletti, acting deputy attorney general, said. Viewers would see important cases "realistically, as opposed to unrealistically as in the Perry Mason kind of presentation."
Replying to a reporter's questions, Civiletti gave his "personal" opinion on the issue after addressing a session of the midyear meeting of the American Bar Association here. He said, however, that he had "grave concerns" about opening trials - particularly of criminal defendants before juries - to TV coverage.
The most resolute opponent of cameras in the Supreme Court - and even in public places where he appears - is Chief Justice Warren E. Burger. He is to speak today under the restrictions he always requests and the ABA always has granted: no electronic coverage of his remarks.
Burger will come here at a time of an apparently accelerating trend toward unobtrusive electronic coverage of both trial and appellate proceedings in the courts, as illustrated by these developments:
In July, the Florida Supreme Court launched a one-year experiment in letting TV and still cameras cover trials, under the same rules that state courts apply to the press and public to assure a fair trial.
Last fall, federal Judge Jack B. Weinstein of Brooklyn said, and ABA president William B. Spann Jr. agreed, that oral arguments in the Supreme Court and appellate courts should be available for telecasting or video taping.
Yesterday, the Conference of Chief Justices of the state supreme courts adopted a resolution for a committee to study amending "the Cole of Judicial Conduct to permit electronic and photographic coverage of the courts . . . under guidelines that would preserve the dignity and decorum of our judicial proceedings."
Yesterday, an ABA fair trial/free press committee headed by Judge Alfred T. Goodwin of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, released a revised draft of proposed standards that, for the first time, recognizes that cameras in the courtroom are by themselves "not . . . inconsistent with the right to a fair trial."
The draft, which the ABA will consider at its August meeting says that "such coverage should be permitted if the court in the exercise of sound discretion concludes that it can be carried out unobtrusively and without affecting the conduct of the trial."
In a talk to an ABA group, Fred Graham of CBS News said the Florida Supreme Court experiment is "a judicial revolution" that will "drag the nation's judiciary kicking and screaming into the television age." He predicted the U.S. Supreme Court will be forced to re-examine its "wooden policy" of banning cameras from its chamber.
Civiletti said he is unable to think of any "countervailing disadvantages at all" to telecasting oral arguments in the Supreme and federal appellate courts - and suggested it might force substantial improvement in the quality of such arguments.