A committee of federal judges, citing indifference by the public, worries among judges, and the costs, has decided not to resume a five-year experiment in allowing live television coverage of non-criminal cases in federal trial courts. That means that, in eleven of the fourteen participating federal district courts, the “pilot project” that was ended last July will not be resumed.
However, three trial courts — in California, Washington State and the territory of Guam — will be allowed to go on with the experiment to gather more information on how televising of court trials works out in practice. The program did not reach the federal appeals courts, but only two of thirteen such courts — the Second and the Ninth — have allowed cameras in their courtrooms even though the option was open to all of those courts. The Supreme Court makes its own policy on the issue, and has long banned camera coverage of its official public sessions.
The U.S. Judicial Conference, the policymaking arm of the federal judiciary, received the “pilot project” report of its Court Administration Committee at the Conference’s semi-annual meeting at the Supreme Court Tuesday. The parent body took no action on the report, but the committee has the authority to decide the fate of the program, so its report on shuttering most of the cameras is final.
The committee’s five-page summary of a formal study of the results was filled with negative assessments of how the experiment had gone in the fourteen courts. Among judges who sit in those courts, the majority — including many of whom who favored the project — concluded that televising of such proceedings had a negative effect on the witnesses, lawyers and jurors involved. It did not provide enough benefit to the federal judiciary to offset the negative effects, the panel decided.
The project, as it unfolded over the five-year period that it was in operation, could have led to the televising of 1,512 legal proceedings that were eligible, but only 158 were recorded that way, with the consent of the parties involved and of the presiding judge. Of equal importance, the panel found that the public actually tuned into the TV 21,550 times, a relatively small figure, according to the committee.
The pilot program, the panel said, cost nearly $1 million overall, without counting the cost of the time that court staff spent ssetting up and managing the projcct.