Under pressure from Congress, and responding to technological change, the Judicial Conference today agreed by an "overwhelming" vote to experiment with camera access to civil proceedings at the federal district court level. Under the pilot project, either party to the litigation can veto broadcast access, which could make it a limited experiment. Photographing jurors and witnesses would be barred.
The plan, announced by Chief Judge David Sentelle of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, the chair of the conference executive committee, is essentially a reprise of a similar test it authorized nearly 20 years ago. Though the experiment was generally viewed as a success, the conference pulled the plug in the wake of the raucous 1995 O.J. Simpson trial, which still haunts the debate over cameras in the courts. The conference, the policymaking arm of the federal judiciary, did allow appeals courts to continue allowing cameras, and both the 2nd and 9th circuits currently do so.
In explaining why the conference approved another experiment, Sentelle cited "congressional interest," voiced in several pieces of legislation in recent years that would require or encourage federal courts to allow cameras in. Sentelle also said "technology has changed," in terms of the obtrusiveness of equipment, and the judges were interested in a new look and new data on the impact of cameras on court proceedings. An overwhelming number of states allow some level of broadcast access -- most with fewer limits than the Judicial Conference is imposing -- but federal courts have resisted the idea, influenced in part by the Supreme Court, many of whose members have been adamantly opposed.
The Judicial Conference does not set policy for the Supreme Court, but when asked if Chief Justice John Roberts Jr., who chairs the conference, contributed to the debate, Sentelle noted that Roberts presides over the conference meetings. "And when he presides," Sentelle added with a smile, "he calls balls and strikes."
Sentelle said details of the experiment, such as when it would start and which district courts would be involved, have not yet been worked out.
Check back later for more on the Judicial Conference action.