Editorial: Let all witness our courts in action

A camera monitors a trial in Albany in A camera monitors a trial in Albany in when a judge made an exception in New York State's ban to allow TV coverage. (Jan. 26, 2000) Photo Credit: AP

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The right to witness a critical debate about the fundamental constitutional rights of millions of Americans should be available to more than those sturdy enough to wait in line for days, in the cold and snow, outside the U.S. Supreme Court.

The judiciary, whether operating out of a vaunted marble palace in Washington or a tired trial courtroom in the county center, has an obligation to televise its public sessions to its citizens. The failure to do so deeply undercuts our very notion of open government.

Cameras in courtroom, all the courtrooms, are long overdue.

Those who scored the 70 seats available to the general public yesterday at the Supreme Court were no doubt disappointed if they expected a lively debate on whether the U.S. Constitution's guarantee of equal protection of the law means same-sex couples have a right to marry. What they heard instead was the high court's more typical dry discussion of process -- whether the parties who want to keep in place the ballot initiative that overturned California law recognizing same-sex marriage had the authority to bring the case to the nation's top court in the first place.

On Wednesday, the justices will hear arguments on a law passed by Congress and signed by president Bill Clinton that denied federal benefits to same-sex couples. The outcome of both cases will determine whether same-sex marriage in this nation will be recognized quickly as a constitutional right, overturning all state and local restrictions against it, or whether states should each decide the issue. As technical as the debate was, this is a matter of intense interest and importance to our nation. We should have been allowed in on the debate.

Despite the high-profile, high-stakes cases that make headlines in Washington, the legal action that more often grabs the public's attention takes place in state courts like those in New York where, incredibly, cameras are also not allowed.

New York banned making motion pictures of proceedings in its courts in 1952. The prohibition was a reaction to the trial of Bruno Hauptmann in New Jersey for kidnapping and murdering the son of Charles Lindbergh. It was the celebrity "trial of the century" in its era, a media circus. Six decades later, intrusive newsreel cameramen are long gone, but the ban is still in place.

State and federal courts are open to the public for good reason. Allowing people to see how laws are interpreted, rights are protected and criminals are punished educates the public and helps ensure justice is done. Rather than shunning technology, officials should use it to extend that public scrutiny beyond the few people with the time and ability to access a courtroom. "If you can see something as a spectator in a courtroom, you should be able to see it as a public viewer outside the courtroom," said New York Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman, who has urged the State Legislature to end the ban.

New York experimented with courtroom cameras from 1987 to 1997. Official reports that followed noted very few problems -- trials weren't disrupted, witnesses weren't intimidated, verdicts weren't overturned -- and recommended that audiovisual coverage be made permanent. Two-thirds of states now permit audiovisual coverage in their courts.

New York and the U.S. Supreme Court should let all their citizens have a seat on the aisle.

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