A YEAR AGO this week, the Supreme Court decided the case of Chandler v. Florida, upholding the right of state courts to allow television coverage of judicial proceedings. After a limited two-year experiment with electronic media, the Supreme Court of Florida, in 1979, had revised court regulations to allow such coverage at public trials and appellate proceedings, provided that the presiding judge retained control over the proceedings and took care to preserve decorum and fairness and that all concerned adhered to a specific set of guidelines governing the kind of electronic equipment to be used and the manner of its use. When the Florida rules were adopted, six states already allowed television coverage of trials and 10 others were experimenting with such coverage.
Today, in part because of the green light given by the Supreme Court in Chandler, 36 states allow television cameras in the courtroom. Some restrict coverage to appellate proceedings that do not involve witnesses or jurors; others authorize cameras at criminal trials only with the consent of the parties. But the opportunities for coverage are increasing, which is good. Making legal proceedings available for viewing by a wide segment of the public can increase understanding of this vital branch of government and, at the same time, might also improve the quality of justice dispensed by the courts.
There are dangers, of course. The psychological effect of television coverage on the witnesses, jurors, lawyers and judges must be monitored, and the media should act with some restraint. But if guidelines such as those adopted in Florida are enforced, it should be all right.
A number of states that have experimented with television in the courtroom have reported favorably on the practice, and a majority of judges and law professors surveyed by this newspaper in 1978 expressed similar approval. Last week, at the mid-year meeting of the American Bar Association in Chicago, lawyers debated the question of amending the ABA Code of Judicial Conduct that now prohibits cameras in the courtroom except for ceremonial occasions. While the code does not have the force of law, it does serve as a model for state courts. Failure to modify the ABA canon will not prevent individual states from adopting new rules, but it will undoubtedly discourage them.
An ABA prohibition also carries great weight with the judiciary, and individual judges might feel bound to bar cameras from the courts because of the canon even where they are allowed the discretion, in their own states, to admit them. ABA committees will propose revisions to the canon at the association's annual meeting in August. The new rule should encourage further experimentation in the area of TV coverage of legal proceedings, for the cooperation of judges, lawyers and the media is needed if this innovation is to succeed.