Q. What is the Sunshine in the Courtroom Act?
A. The Sunshine in the Courtroom Act is a bipartisan bill that I reintroduced in February with fellow senators including the Chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, where I serve as the Ranking Republican. The legislation would allow chief judges of the federal trial and appellate courts to permit cameras in their courtrooms. It also would direct the Judicial Conference (which makes policy for the court system) to draft non-binding guidelines for the judges regarding cameras. And, it would direct the Judicial Conference to issue mandatory guidelines for protecting witnesses such as undercover officers, victims of crime, and victims' families from exposure.
Q. Why is this legislation important?
A. This initiative is about making government more open. It would contribute to the public's understanding of America's judicial system that is now, too often, cloaked in secrecy. Greater transparency would lead to greater accountability, and that reflects the views of our nation's founders that the federal judiciary should have limited power in our system of government.
Like many states, Iowa allows cameras in its courts. One example of the positive effect of cameras in courtrooms was seen during the state trial of the murderers of an Iowa toddler named Shelby Duis. After the case, Dave Busiek, the news director at KCCI-TV in Des Moines, testified before a U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee subcommittee about the impact of having cameras in the courtroom during the case. He testified, "I'm convinced that better public policy will be made about how to prevent future cases of severe child abuse because Iowans were allowed to see for themselves, and not through the filters of a few eyewitnesses in the crowded courtroom, how difficult were the issues involved and how justice was dispensed."
Q. Is this unprecedented in the judicial system?
A. No. State courtrooms have been doing this for decades. All states allow some form of audio or video coverage in some of their courtrooms, and it's led to a greater understanding of the state judicial process.
Also, prior to the arguments before the U.S. Supreme Court on the 2000 Florida presidential election matter, Senator Charles Schumer and I asked Chief Justice William Rehnquist to reconsider the court's decision banning television coverage. Up to that point, nearly all of the proceedings on the recount, including the arguments before the Florida Supreme Court, had been shown on television across the country. Chief Justice Rehnquist did not allow for television cameras, but he made an historic response to our request by releasing a copy of the audiotape immediately following the conclusion of the argument. In his response to Senator Schumer and me, the Chief Justice wrote, "The Court recognizes the intense public interest in this case and for that reason today has decided to release a copy of the audiotape of the argument promptly after the conclusion of the argument."