Hot on the heels of a national debate over whether the U.S. Supreme Court should have allowed the taping of arguments this week on health care reform, a panel of District of Columbia judges, attorneys and journalists sparred last night over the future of cameras in court.
Some state courts have allowed televised proceedings for decades, but, as in the federal trial courts, cameras historically have not been permitted in local courts in the District of Columbia. The federal judiciary is in the middle of a three-year pilot program studying the effects of cameras in 14 federal trial courts.
The Council for Court Excellence, a local nonprofit that studies administration of justice in local courts, organized last night's panel, which was hosted by Venable.
The two judges on the panel – U.S. District Chief Judge Royce Lamberth and District of Columbia Superior Court Judge Jose Lopez – said the resistance to taped proceedings, especially in criminal trials, came from a fear that witnesses would feel intimidated and decide not to testify. Lopez, who presides over the court’s domestic violence unit, said the “anti-snitching” culture in Washington is especially widespread because the city is relatively small.
U.S. Attorney Ronald Machen Jr., the city’s top prosecutor, agreed, saying he was worried about the “chilling effect” cameras could have. “I can’t tell you how real the threat is to witnesses,” he said.
Lamberth also said he thought that, even absent the intimidation factor, cameras can influence behavior in court. He cited the televised trial in 1995 against O.J. Simpson as an example, saying he thought witnesses “shaded” their testimony because they knew they would be on camera. Lamberth said he wanted to see the results of the federal judiciary’s pilot program before coming to any more conclusions.
Panelist Fred D’Ambrosi, news director of local news station WUSA, said he thought opposition to cameras was undermined by the success other state courts have had in allowing televised and recorded proceedings. D’Ambrosi said that when he was covering proceedings in Wisconsin and California, courts there successfully coordinated with members of the press to permit cameras inside.