Federal judges less camera shy

Published February 14, 2007

MIAMI - Reflecting on closely watched controversial cases, federal judges say the public would have benefited from televised trials.

The judges' comments at an American Bar Association meeting came as lawmakers are considering bills that would open up federal courtrooms, including the Supreme Court, to cameras.

U.S. District Judge John E. Jones barred television cameras from covering the lawsuit over the teaching of intelligent design in biology class in Dover, Pa. "I might have gotten it wrong," Jones said. "The lawyering was so good. We might have benefited from the public seeing the witnesses and the process."

Similarly, U.S. District Judge Myron Thompson said he wished cameras could have recorded the trial in his courtroom over the presence of a Ten Commandments monument that then-Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore installed in the state's judicial building.

"The public could have heard it and decided for themselves whether they agreed with my decision," said Thompson, who ordered the monument removed because it violated the separation of church and state. "Having the camera in the courtroom allows the public to get both sides of the argument."

The weekend session focused on practical and personal issues the judges faced in handling the controversies.

U.S. District Judge James Whittemore, who turned down requests to block the removal of a feeding tube from the brain-damaged Florida woman Terri Schiavo, said he presided at televised trials while a state judge and never encountered problems.

The three judges presided over bench trials, without juries and the complications that could arise from the presence of cameras.

Judge Rosemary Barkett of the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta said appellate arguments should always be televised because juries never are involved at that level. Recalling her time on the Florida Supreme Court, she said: "Many of us lost our tempers and were just as obnoxious after the cameras as before the cameras. You forget about them."

Since the Bush vs. Gore case in the disputed 2000 presidential election, the Supreme Court has released same-day audio in some major cases.