IF THERE IS ANY respect in the Maryland legislature for the views of the highest court in the state, maybe this year the assembled lawmakers will agree with the jurists that the presence of cameras and recorders in an otherwise open courtroom is not incompatible with a fair trial. The subject, scheduled for a hearing in Annapolis today, is one that deserves more sophisticated consideration than it enjoyed last year, when too many lawmakers fell for unsubstantiated arguments against complete court coverage.
Of course no one wants the courtrooms to become circuses, with defendants, attorneys and judges in pancake makeup, all flailing through hammy perorations for the viewers. But neither the Supreme Court nor the Maryland Court of Appeals sees that happening. Where trials in some states have been photographed and televised, there has been no identifiable impact on either courtroom conduct or the quality of justice. So why should a proceeding open to the public not be open to viewers as well as readers?
>There was a time when you could argue that photo and television presence did constitute a disruption. Exploding flash powder does have a way of jarring order in the court; and the hellishly hot and blinding televison lamps next to huge cameras in the middle of all the action do, of course, change the atmosphere somewhat. But the new equipment has changed all that. Besides, the courts may still exercise care and controls in these experiments.>
>The appellate judges had decided last year to see whether allowing one television and one still camera at trials--with the consent of the parties involved-- would succeed. That was hardly an invasion of the courtroom.
>An earlier report by the Public Awareness Committee of the Maryland Judicial Conference noted, "the electronic media have brought us cultural events of note, McCarthy and Watergate hearings, and the first landing of a man on the moon. Each medium is charged with the responsibility of transmitting public information along with entertainment . . . The benefits of a mass communications system free from censorship by government are so significant as to cause the deficiencies to pale by comparison.">
It should go without saying that our corporate interest in this matter extends not only to newspaper photography, but to television and other visual systems. In this instance, the judges of the state who approved camera coverage on an experimental basis were following recommendations of the Maryland Bar Association and were following many other states that permit television coverage in the courts. And somewhere down the line, is the interest of the public in the judicial system--complete with its sights and sounds.
The legislature should get out of the picture--and let the courts be the judge.