House Democrats press for cameras in federal courts

“You try to read their body language.  You watch them and their reactions closely.  It’s an art.  Not a science,” Glenn Ivey recalled.  “When you’re in a jury trial, the last thing on your mind is anything other than the judge and the jury.”

Even a television camera would be ignored, Ivey argued.

Ivey, a first-term Democratic member of Congress from Maryland, spent decades as a state and federal prosecutor before winning a seat in the House. Heis now one of a growing number of House Democrats urging support for a new law or new rules allowing television cameras inside United States federal courts.

Ivey insisted the cameras wouldn’t impact the tone or outcome of a criminal trial, but would instead give Americans an unbiased, unfiltered view of the justice system.

“There’s no substitute for people seeing proceedings for themselves and drawing their own conclusion,” he said.  

America has entered an unprecedented and historic moment, in which presidential politics and federal criminal prosecutions have merged. Former President Donald Trump’s scheduled trial in the 2020 election conspiracy criminal case brought by special counsel Jack Smith is scheduled to begin in less than six months in Washington, D.C. Jury selection is set to begin one day before the Super Tuesday primaries, in which Trump is currently projected to be the Republican frontrunner.

A  Homeland Security canine unit sweeps one of the entrances to the E. Barrett Prettyman United States Courthouse in Washington, DC, US, on August 3, 2023. / Credit: Roberto Schmidt  / Getty Images

A Homeland Security canine unit sweeps one of the entrances to the E. Barrett Prettyman United States Courthouse in Washington, DC, US, on August 3, 2023. / Credit: Roberto Schmidt / Getty Images

Trump’s criminal trial in Florida for the alleged mishandling of classified records is scheduled to begin just two months later, as the presidential primary season will conclude.

But there will be cameras in at least one of Trump’s trials. In Georgia, Fulton County Judge Scott McAfee has ruled that all related hearings and trials in that case will be televised. State law there allows for televised proceedings as long as the cameras do not disrupt the proceedings.

Mix in some high stakes Supreme Court arguments and the ongoing electoral impact of the landmark 2022 ruling overturning Roe v. Wade, and some members of Congress sense an opportunity to end the federal government’s prohibition on cameras in federal courts and the Supreme Court of the United States.

There have been multiple pieces of legislation formally introduced in Congress in recent years to allow cameras into the nearly 100 federal criminal court systems nationwide. Some Democrats are now increasing their advocacy for a bipartisan bill sponsored in March by Republican Sen. Charles Grassley of Iowa and Democratic Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota. The bill was introduced before it was known that Trump would be charged in federal criminal court.

The senators had championed their proposal at the time by saying, “The judicial branch has a massive impact on our daily lives and the lives of generations to come, yet few Americans ever get the chance to see inside the legal process.”

Speaking with CBS News, multiple House Democrats are now encouraging support for such proposals, citing the importance of ensuring any Trump trial is shown on television for Americans to watch.  They’re leveraging Republican claims of “witch hunts” against Trump as part of their arguments.

Rep. Jerold Nadler of New York, the top Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee, told CBS News, “I’m sure that Republicans are going to try to stay that this case is somehow a ‘put-up’ job.  That it’s a ‘railroading’. f the American public can see what goes on, they will be much more confident in our justice system.”

Ivey said cameras in federal criminal courts would prevent perceptions of bias in the news coverage of the Trump trials. “I think it’s the only antidote to the acrimonious theater that you’re going to get otherwise,” Ivey said, “You don’t have many news sources that are viewed as independent anymore, rightly or wrongly.”

In a separate effort, a coalition of three dozen House Democrats has written a letter to the Judicial Conference, which oversees federal court procedures, seeking a narrower change of policy to allow for televised proceedings of any Trump federal trial.

“Given the historic nature of the charges brought forth in these cases, it is hard to imagine a more powerful circumstance for televised proceedings,” the letter said. “If the public is to fully accept the outcome, it will be vitally important for it to witness, as directly as possible, how the trials are conducted, the strength of the evidence adduced and the credibility of witnesses.”

Citing increasing interest in the issue, the Congressional Research Service has published a memo detailing options for Congress to consider. The memo, issued in August and reviewed by CBS News, said the federal prohibition on cameras in federal courts can only be overturned through a decision by the Judicial Conference of the United States, which administers the federal court system, or through Congressional legislation.

“Debate regarding whether to expand video broadcasting in the federal courts often weigh an interest in providing public information about proceedings against preserving the integrity of the legal process and due process rights of parties,” the memo said.

Camera access would require some safeguards in some criminal cases, Members of Congress have acknowledged.  In an interview with CBS News earlier this year, Democratic Sen. Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut, a former federal prosecutor, said protections would be needed to avoid putting victims and witnesses at risk.

“By giving the judge’s discretion, it preserves the ability to shield some witnesses, who might not want their identities young,” Blumenthal said. “If they’re young or victims of domestic violence.”  

Legislators press for cameras in Supreme Court as arguments begin

Some members of Congress are also extending their argument to include camera access to the Supreme Court, where cases might also have a dramatic impact on the American electorate.

CBS News has obtained a copy of a “Dear Colleague” letter circulating among US House members this week, seeking support for legislation to require television cameras inside the Supreme Court.

The letter, which is being circulated by Democratic Reps. Gerry Connolly of Virginia, Rep. Mike Quigley of Illinois, Rep. Hank Johnson of Georgia and Rep. Adam Schiff of California said, “the lack of transparency creates a perception of secrecy unworthy of the third branch of our government.”

“It also limits the public and the media to one-dimensional and sometimes distorted views of the Justices’ actions because court transcripts cannot provide the public and the media with the verbal intonations, body language, and other cues that can help interpret meaning and provide clarity,” the letter continued.

Connolly told CBS News that “the Supreme Court is not some mystical, druidic priesthood that periodically deigns to review constitutional issues and hand down their wisdom from on high. The American public has a right to witness consequential and historic proceedings that come before the highest court.”

A coalition of media organizations have joined members of Congress in advocating for camera access to the high court. In a new letter to Chief Justice of the United States John Roberts, media groups have argued for the court to continue offering audio feeds of the arguments, until camera access is made available.

“Short of providing live video of proceedings, permanent live audio of the Supreme Court’s proceedings is the best way to keep the public informed and engaged with respect to its operations,” the letter said.

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