A House of Representatives hearing Wednesday on having cameras in U.S. courtrooms confirmed that, as Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) put it, opinions on the matter are "strongly and sincerely held."
It's just that those opinions are diametrically opposed to one another, which helps explain why it's unlikely we're going to see cameras in federal courts, especially the U.S. Supreme Court, anytime soon.
Both Republicans and Democrats in Congress have been pushing for courts to start widely recording and broadcasting their proceedings for at least the past 15 years. The public overwhelmingly says it wants cameras in court. Proponents say that having that view into the legal system would be educational, and just might serve to convince Americans that, by and large, the U.S. justice system works. But judges have largely resisted the move. Wednesday's hearing was on the Sunshine in the Courtroom Act, a bipartisan bill that would tweak the law to let federal judges choose when to allow cameras in their courtrooms.
That bill's restraint is an admission that Congress has limited power to tell the federal courts what to do. (Recall the three co-equal branches of government thing.) And as much as the lawyers in Congress are eager for a bit of sunlight into the courts — what with all the mucking around they do with laws and elections — in the courts judges rule, and judges are holding on to the idea that cameras in courts are too much, too soon.
Representing the federal judiciary at the hearing was Julie A. Robinson, a judge on the U.S. District Court for the District of Kansas. Court proceedings, said Robinson, are a "search for the truth," and as such can get messy and uncomfortable. Witnesses especially, said Robinson, might be reluctant to testify in full candor knowing that "their boss, their minister, their next-door neighbor" might be watching.
And then, said Robinson, there are confidential informants who — even though the plan on the table would allow them to request to obscure their faces and voices — might still have their identities revealed by the contextual clues tucked into their testimonies.
Many of the many lawyers on the Judiciary Committee argued that records of court proceedings are already made public. Anyone can go down to the courthouse, or in many cases to the court Web site, and get a copy. Said Rep. Ted Deutch (D-Fla.): "If someone wants to do them harm, all they have to do is go and get the transcript."
But that we human animals are far more likely to consume television than transcripts is why there has been such a push for cameras in courts at all.
The federal judiciary has taken baby steps. In 2010, the Judicial Conference of the United States launched a pilot project in 14 courts to record civil cases. The videos are posted on USCourts.gov. That project runs through mid-July, and there will be a report issued on how well it worked.
But, said Mickey H. Osterreicher, general counsel of the National Press Photographers Association, "I'm not really sure how much data we need to convince people."
Indeed, it's a cultural shift that will need to take place in the hearts and minds of judges before the public will see widespread adoption of cameras inside courtrooms. And on that, the judges at the top of the food chain have largely set the tone. Members of the Supreme Court have largely recoiled at the idea of allowing live broadcasting of their proceedings, though in recent years they have moved to the immediate release of transcripts and the only slightly-less-quick release of audio recordings.
"We've evolved as a nation and we've evolved as an institution," says Judge Robinson, reflecting on the opening up of the courts that has taken place in recent decades. But the latter is what matters here. And we won't see cameras in courts until the opinions inside the judicial institution match the opinions of the nation, or for that matter, of Congress.