Illinois, which has allowed cameras in its appellate courts and its supreme court since 1983, recently opened up its trial courts to cameras as part of a pilot program. Illinois is part of a growing movement to have cameras in the courtroom. This movement can be seen on the state level, not only in Illinois, but also in Pennsylvania, Minnesota and South Dakota. These states have amended their procedures to make them more accessible to cameras. All 50 states now permit cameras in their courts, albeit with various restrictions. On the federal level, the Judicial Conference recently approved a pilot program, which is being conducted by the Federal Judicial Center, in which 14 district courts are experimenting with cameras in the courtroom. Although the US Supreme Court has resisted permitting cameras during oral argument, Congress has been working on legislation that would allow cameras in the Supreme Court. On February 9, 2012, the Senate Judiciary Committee voted 11-7 in favor of having cameras in the US Supreme Court. A similar bill, the Cameras in the Courtroom Act of 2011, is still pending in the House Judiciary Committee.
Leaving aside the constitutional question of one branch taking an action that does not respect the judgment of a coordinate branch, is permitting cameras in the courtroom a wise policy decision? Making courts accessible to citizens is important, but courts can do this in different ways, such as making audio and written transcripts available as quickly as possible. Cameras are not the only answer. Admittedly, the trend has been toward allowing cameras in courtrooms, but there are good policy reasons to stop short of having cameras in the courtroom, particularly in trial courts. At the very least, state and federal courts need to proceed cautiously and consider what is at stake. (more…)