“Sunshine in the Courtroom Act” needs work, law professor testifies.
Washington, DC (November 9, 2005) – Prof. Barbara Bergman, President of the 13,000-member National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, surprised some members of the Senate Judiciary Committee today when she expressed the bar association’s general support for televising federal court proceedings in many criminal proceedings and in all Supreme Court arguments. But, she added, there is no general consensus in the criminal defense community on the overall desirability of cameras in courtrooms. The public’s right of access – through the electronic media – must always be weighed against the defendant’s constitutional rights to due process and a fair trial, she said.
NACDL passed a resolution in 1996 after considerable debate cautiously approving cameras in criminal trials, but only with the express consent of the accused. The association’s Board of Directors revisited its 1996 position during its fall meeting Nov. 5 in anticipation of today’s hearing. The sense of a majority of the Board this time around was that televising federal criminal trials and interlocutory appeals could serve the interests of justice, but only with the consent of both parties. The Board approved televising federal appellate arguments on the merits in all criminal cases, including U.S. Supreme Court arguments.
“The NACDL believes that S. 829 does not strike the right balance,” Bergman testified. “We would like to see the bill amended so as to authorize cameras in district court criminal proceedings and interlocutory appeals only with the express consent of the parties. In all other criminal matters coming before the United States Courts of Appeals and the Supreme Court, the NACDL favors access for cameras.”
Extended media coverage of criminal proceedings – gavel-to-gavel coverage – can foster respect for verdicts that the public otherwise might find troubling or even incomprehensible. In some cases, televised trials may provide the public with greater insight regarding the appropriateness of certain laws and the potential need for reform.
The print and broadcast media make an invaluable contribution to our justice system in many ways -- by exposing miscarriages of justice, by encouraging a higher level of professionalism among lawyers and judges, and in educating the public to name but a few. However, Bergman explained, the Sixth Amendment’s guarantee of the right to a public trial confers the right upon the defendant – not the media. The purpose of this guarantee is to protect the accused from the abuses that can arise during secret proceedings by subjecting the courtroom events and participants to public scrutiny.
“Any rule that fails to honor the accused’s objection would easily jeopardize the defendant’s fundamental right to a fair trial, upon which the accused’s life or liberty depends. While we support efforts to ensure more sunshine on our democratic institutions, that goal should not be allowed to eclipse the fundamental purpose of a criminal trial, which is not education, which is not entertainment, but justice,” she concluded.
Professor Bergman’s written statement can be downloaded from NACDL’s Web site:
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The National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers is the preeminent organization advancing the mission of the criminal defense bar to ensure justice and due process for persons accused of crime or wrongdoing. A professional bar association founded in 1958, NACDL's many thousands of direct members in 28 countries – and 90 state, provincial and local affiliate organizations totaling up to 40,000 attorneys – include private criminal defense lawyers, public defenders, military defense counsel, law professors and judges committed to preserving fairness and promoting a rational and humane criminal justice system.