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After lying dormant for several years, the battle over cameras in federal courts came out into the open on Wednesday. And the issue remains as controversial as ever. At a Senate hearing on legislation that would open up federal trial courts to cameras, members of the federal bench and key lawmakers took opposing positions. “Camera coverage can do irreparable harm to a citizen’s right to a fair and impartial trial,” said Edward Becker, chief judge of the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. Speaking for the U.S. Judicial Conference, the policy-making arm of the federal courts, Becker said the presence of cameras in federal trial courts would intimidate witnesses, litigants, and jurors. But U.S. District Judge Nancy Gertner of Boston said she strongly disagreed with that stance. “In the 21st century, meaningful access [to the courts] means television,” she said. Gertner isn’t alone. In an interview before Wednesday’s hearing, U.S. District Judge Barbara Crabb of the Western District of Wisconsin said she would allow cameras in her courtroom in some cases. “Most of my colleagues look at me as if I’ve lost my marbles,” said Crabb. The public, she said, “would learn a lot from the slow, intellectual decision-making.” The hearing on Wednesday — covered by five television cameras — was arranged by Sen. Charles Grassley, the Iowa Republican who chairs the Senate Judiciary panel that oversees the federal court system. Grassley is also a chief sponsor of the Senate cameras bill. The bill would set up a three-year experiment giving judges the sole authority to let cameras into their courtrooms. The House of Representatives passed a bill in May that would allow cameras into federal trials but also give unilateral veto power to any named party in a case. In the early 1990s, the Judicial Conference allowed a few trial and appellate courts to experiment with TV coverage. Since that experiment expired, appellate courts — but not trial courts — have been permitted to admit photographers, but only the 9th Circuit and the 2nd Circuit have exercised the option. Cameras in state courts would not be affected by the bill. Currently, 48 states allow some camera coverage of their courts. But only 16 states allow judges the same broad discretion over the use of cameras as outlined in the Grassley bill, according to the Judicial Conference. While Wednesday’s hearing marked one of the most substantive recent discussions of the issue among policy-makers, the prospects for passage before Congress adjourns in a month are dubious. Some key GOP lawmakers are split on the Grassley bill. Judiciary Committee Chairman Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, said Wednesday that he opposes the legislation. “The Judicial Conference is well-equipped to make this determination,” Hatch said. But Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., a member of the Judiciary Committee, said he supports allowing cameras into the federal courts. In fact, he said Wednesday that he would introduce his own bill to require the Supreme Court to televise its proceedings. Even with the bill not likely to pass, Grassley hopes that Wednesday’s hearing “will promote the idea,” according to a spokeswoman for Grassley. Another witness was Massachusetts state court judge Hiller Zobel, who presided over the 1997 trial of Louise Woodward, a British au pair accused of killing a baby in her charge. The sensational case was covered extensively by television. While saying he wasn’t taking a position on the Senate bill, Zobel showed support for cameras in the courts. “I have difficulty in understanding how a television camera makes things unfair,” he said.

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