By lopsided majorities, legal experts and the chief judges of the state supreme courts favor opening trial and appeals courtrooms to television and radio coverage, according to the findings of a nationwide Washington Post survey.
They also favor opening up the now secret proceedings of the Judicial Conference of the United States, the governing body for the administration of the federal judiciary, and making the conference subject to the provisions of the Freedom of Information Art.
These findings come at a time when support for placing TV cameras and microphones in courtrooms has been growing nationwide despite hard-core opposition from a number of jurists and others who feel the fairness and decorum of trials would be adversely affected.
At next month's annual convention of the American Bar Association in New York, the question of cameras in the courtroom is expected to be the hottest issue before the policymaking House of Delegates.
The clear majority of those surveyed by The Post favor sweeping revisions that would open all courts, including the Supreme Court, to TV and radio. Many expressed opinions similar to that of Ralph B. Hodges, the chief justice of the Oklahoma Supreme COurt, one of the 410 persons in the survey.
"Judicial aloofness is passe," Hodges said. "What we need in the judiciary, both federal and state, is a new era of judicial openness."
Only one group surveyed - members of the Judicial Conference itself - came out against more open court procedures.
The survey was conducted by mail, with questionnaires sent out in late April and followup letters in May and June. Responses were received from 12 of the 25 members of the Judicial Conference, 28 of 50 state supreme court justices and about 60 per cent of a randomly selected sample of constitutional law professors and political science professors specializing in public law.
Overall, 56 per cent approved of electronic coverage of trials, 31 per cent disapproved and 13 per cent said they were uncertain. In the group that deals most closely with the question, the heads of the state supreme courts, such coverage was approved by a 6 to 1 ratio among those who expressed an opinion.
Wrote Charles T. Wright, chief judge of the Washington State Supreme Court: "We in Washington have studied electronic radio-TV and photo coverage and have approved. It is well accepted by those who have tried it."
A number of those who favored having TV and radio broadcast oral arguments in appeals courts and the Supreme Court expressed concern about the effect of cameras and microphones on trials, however.
"I believe it is impossible to say that electronic coverage would not affect fairness (of a trial) in any given case." said Richard A. Williamson, professor of law at the College of William and Mary. "The effect of electronic coverage on witnesses, lawyers and judges could never be evaluated; thus, its influence on the trial would always be uncertain."
According to the Associated Press, the American Bar Association lists the states of Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Montana, Nevada, New Hampshire, Ohio, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Texas and Washington as allowing cameras in state courts on a permanent basis. Minnesota and Wisconsin are allowing cameras on an experimental basis, Colorado is experimenting for a 20-year period, and Florida has just completed a one-year test. That state's supreme court will hear arguments in August on whether to adopt the practice, drop it, or experiment with it further.
The Florida experiment was highly publicized, in part because of two sensational murder trials. In one, 15-year-old Ronny Zamora unsuccessfully invoked a defense that a television show was a factor in his slaying of an octogenarian neighbor during a burglary.
In the other, James E. Knight, 18, described for the courtroom and the viewing audience the strangulation of a Hialeah postman. "We just couldn't rob him and let him alive," Knight said.
Most Florida trial coverage was less dramatic, and the experiment overall drew mexed reviews. According to the Miami Herald, in a survey of 130 of the state's 268 circuit judges, 12 per cent said the cameras resulted in serious disruptions, and 32 percent said witnesses were adversely affected.
U.S. Attorney General Griffin Bell has made some ambrivalent comme, is about TV in the trial couts, saying cameras might make some lawyers "clean up their act" and make proceedings more efficient. At the same time, Bell said he feared witnesses might be inhibited by TV.
Bell's assistant, Deputy Attorney General Benjamin R.L Civiletti, has said he has "grave concerns" about the effect of TV coverage on trials.
Both Bell and Civiletti have endorsed electronic coverage in the federal appeals courts. In the Post survey, only one person in four came out in opposition to the broadcasting of oral argument in appeals courts and the U.S. Supreme Court.
"Access of scholars to material on oral argument is now delayed too long," wrote one of those surveyed, Mary C. Thornberry, a professor of public law at the University of Arizona in Tucson. "Open coverage would permit greater availability of such materials."
Neil D. McFeeley, assistant professor of public law at the University of Idaho, said he would welcome oral argument in the Supreme Court but added, "I doubt that the present chief justice would allow it, however."
McFeeley's view is shared by otlhers. Chief Justice Warren E. Burger, who is also clhairman of the Judicial Conference, is a resolute foe of television coverage of the Supreme Court. Burger is reported to have said last year, "I wouldn't sit on the bench if there werea television camera in the room," and that "the only business in the court that cameras might record would be "my funeral."
Burger has "a foot on the brake," according to Alfred T. Goodwin, chairman of the Bar Association's Committee of Fair Trail and Free Press. Goodwin, a judge of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, said that Burger's braking "will be very effective."
While Burger has not publicly stated the reasons for opposition to cameras in the high court, he has been reported as having said that some of his eight colleagues would "ham it up" for TV, and that commercial television is a "sleazy operation" that would carry argument only in the most sensational cases.
The first public comment on the issue by a Supreme Court member came last May from Justice Potter Stewart. Stewart confirmed to The Washington Post that, at an informal meeting in his office, he had told visitors that TV coverage of oral argument in the court "is probably going to come and be a good thing in the long run."