SF Chronicle

Friday, October 8, 2010

Let cameras in courts, chief appeals judge says
Bob Egelko, Chronicle Staff Writer

  (10-07) 16:06 PDT SAN FRANCISCO -- It's time to allow television cameras
into the nation's courtrooms "to give the public a full and fair picture
of what goes on," says the chief judge of the federal appeals court in San
Francisco - with a swipe at the U.S. Supreme Court for blocking video
coverage of the Proposition 8 trial.
  Televising court proceedings would increase public respect for the justice
system and might also improve trials, Chief Judge Alex Kozinski of the
Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals wrote in the Fordham University law
  Although some lawyers and judges might grandstand for the camera, and some
witnesses might be intimidated, others may act more carefully if they know
the public is watching, Kozinski said in the article, co-written with his
former law clerk Robert Johnson.
  "Judges may avoid falling asleep on the bench or take more care explaining
their decisions and avoiding arbitrary rulings or excessively lax
courtroom management," Kozinski said.
  "Some witnesses may feel too nervous to lie," he wrote. "Others may
hesitate to make up a story when they know that someone able to spot the
falsehood may hear them talk."
  Federal courts have long prohibited cameras, with a few exceptions. The
appeals courts in San Francisco and New York televise some hearings.
Kozinski's court approved a pilot project in December 2009 authorizing
trial judges in the nine-state circuit to allow cameras at selected
nonjury civil trials, but the experiment hit a roadblock in the Supreme
  Chief U.S. District Judge Vaughn Walker of San Francisco approved
closed-circuit broadcasts to other federal courthouses of this year's
trial of a lawsuit challenging Prop. 8, California's ban on same-sex
marriage. He also said it could be videotaped for later posting on
  The appeals court approved the closed-circuit telecast, but the high court
vetoed it just as the trial was about to start. A 5-4 majority said Walker
had failed to give the public enough time to comment on the proposal and
said cameras could have a chilling effect on the expert witnesses called
to defend Prop. 8.
  Any televising of federal trials should begin with a less controversial
case, said the justices, who have rejected proposals to admit cameras to
their own hearings.
  Kozinski took a poke at the ruling in his article.
  "At a time when we've had gavel-to-gavel coverage of both houses of
Congress for over two decades, it's hard to explain why the prospect of
broadcasting a judicial trial to a courtroom across the country merits the
emergency intervention of the Supreme Court," he said.
  All states allow cameras in at least some court proceedings. California
leaves decisions on cameras at trials to Superior Court judges, who have
rejected virtually all such requests since the histrionics of the O.J.
Simpson murder trial in 1995.
  A state Judicial Council committee of judges, lawyers and media
representatives has recommended changing the rules and allowing cameras at
trials unless the judge states specific reasons to exclude them, findings
that media organizations could then appeal.
  The council has invited public comments through Oct. 29 and plans to
consider the proposal next spring.

E-mail Bob Egelko at begelko@sfchronicle.com