Today we begin with the debate over just how much we’re entitled to see of what goes on in America’s federal courtrooms. And should we get to see it firsthand— or even live? It’s neither an easy nor a settled question nearly a century after cameras entered their first courtroom. Some argue they provide accountability and transparency to the judiciary branch. Others see only a circus.
The trial of former police officer Derek Chauvin, convicted of murdering black suspect George Floyd, was marketed like a Hollywood drama.
Court TV anchor (March 2021): Court TV cameras will be inside that courtroom.
Viewers may not have known it, but it was the first full trial in Minnesota where TV cameras were allowed.
When it comes to courtroom drama, it’s hard to think of a more made-for-TV trial than that of former NFL star OJ Simpson in California. A pair of blood-stained gloves appeared too small for Simpson, proving, his attorney argued, that Simpson wasn’t the one who wore them and killed his ex-wife.
Johnnie Cochran/Simpson attorney: If it doesn’t fit, you must acquit.
Simpson walked away with a “not guilty” verdict.
For all the interest the Simpson trial generated, it revealed both the promise and the perils of cameras in court. It allowed the public to see just how the jury arrived at its verdict. But critics said the judge, attorneys, and witnesses were made into celebrities, sometimes playing to the media more than the jury.
More than 25 years later, that sums up the current debate over whether cameras in state and local courtrooms should be expanded to the federal halls of justice where they’re currently banned.
Chuck Grassley is among a bipartisan group of senators supporting two bills that would permit cameras, for the first time, in all federal courts and the U.S. Supreme Court.
Sharyl: What do you think of the chances that either one of these bills gets approved?
Sen. Chuck Grassley: It's going to be easier to get cameras in the courtroom for the district and circuit courts than a bill for the Supreme Court. And some Justices have said, "It would be over my dead body,” that we'll have cameras in the Supreme Court.
That comment came from Justice David Souter in 1996.
Justice David Souter (March 28, 1996): I can tell you the day you'll see a camera coming into our courtroom, it's going to get rolled over my dead body.
The debate over cameras in the courtroom began before World War II. The first big trial seen by a wide audience was in 1935. Bruno Hauptmann kidnapped and murdered the child of aviator Charles Lindbergh. Video was shown in movie theaters.
The circus-like atmosphere prompted most states to restrict the broadcasting of court proceedings. The press has been pushing back ever since.
Sharyl: Have you heard any concern that with cameras present, it could change the whole dynamic of how the attorneys perform and how witnesses act and how the judges determined things?
Sen. Grassley: You hear it all the time, but it hasn't affected state jurisdiction and the state judiciaries where they allow cameras in the court room.
That’s been heavily debated. In 1965, a Texas judge allowed cameras in the sensational trial of Billy Sol Estes. He was a politically-connected swindler linked to conspiracies involving President Johnson, the Kennedy assassination, and other suspicious deaths. The Supreme Court later overturned some of his convictions on the grounds that cameras deprived him of a fair trial.
In 1966, the Supreme Court also found cameras and excessive publicity interfered with the Ohio trial of Dr. Sam Sheppard, convicted of murdering his wife. A retrial found him not guilty.
In the late 1970s, Florida gave cameras a shot. The trial of serial killer Ted Bundy was televised nationally.
In 1981, a big ruling came in another Florida case. Two Miami Beach police officers convicted of burglary challenged cameras at their trial. But they lost in a Supreme Court ruling with national implications. It said cameras in court do not violate the constitutional rights of the accused.
A decade later, Court TV was launched with recognition that live courtroom drama could grab and hold a cable audience’s attention. Some of law’s most remarkable moments in court have played out before a global audience.
The 1991 trial of Pamela Smart, a school teacher convicted of helping her teen lover murder her husband.
The 1991 rape case against William Kennedy Smith, nephew of President Kennedy. He was found not guilty.
The 1992 trial of gay, cannibal serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer, later murdered in prison.
Lorena Bobbitt, who cut off her husband's penis and was deemed temporarily insane.
Actor Robert Blake, found not guilty of murdering his wife.
And young mother Casey Anthony, not guilty in her daughter’s murder.
By 2006, all 50 states permitted some form of camera coverage in their courts, producing drama and insight.
Here, a judge was charged with crimes and removed from the bench after challenging a public defender to a fistfight.
Public Defender: I am the public defender and I have the right to be here and I have right to stand and represent my clients.
Judge: I said sit down, if you want to fight let's go out back and I'll just beat your ass...
This judge recognized a defendant from their middle school days.
All the while, in federal court, cameras have been banned except for pilot programs and limited circumstances.
In 2020, the Covid-19 shutdowns helped push the envelope. With the normal in-person audience not allowed to observe Supreme Court proceedings, the court broadcast live audio of its oral arguments for the first time in its 230-year history. The case was about whether Booking.com can trademark its name. The answer was yes.
As for the Supreme Court justices, some have said the decision of whether to allow cameras at some point should be left up to them. And their views have been divided over the years.
Most recently, Justices Gorsuch, Kavanaugh, and Barrett have pledged to keep an open mind.
Senator Amy Klobuchar (March 21, 2017): So what is your opinion on having cameras in the Supreme Court?
Neil Gorsuch (March 21, 2017): I come to it with an open mind.
Brett Kavanaugh(September 6, 2018): I will have an open mind on it.
Amy Coney Barrett (October 14, 2020): I would certainly keep an open mind about allowing cameras in the Supreme Court.
Justices Sotomayor and Kagan have expressed positive views.
Sonia Sotomayor (June 14, 2009): I have had positive experiences with cameras when I have been asked to join experiments using cameras in the courtroom.
Justice Elena Kagan (August 2, 2011): Actually I’ve said before that I do think it would be a good idea, and in this I differ from some of my colleagues.
Chief Justice Roberts sounded hesitant when asked 16 years ago:
Chief Justice John Roberts (July 13, 2006): There’s a concern about the impact of television on the functioning of the institution. And we’re going to be very careful before we do anything that we think might have an adverse impact on that.
Justices Thomas and Kennedy joined Souter as clear “no’s” when asked.
Justice Clarence Thomas (August 4, 2006): It will change our proceedings and I don’t think for the better.
Justice Anthony Kennedy (July 14, 2009): We feel very strongly that it would affect the dynamics of the argument.
One of the most interesting viewpoints came from Justice Scalia.
Justice Antonin Scalia (October 5, 2011): I was initially in favor of televising. But the longer I’ve been there, the less good idea I think it is.
At confirmation hearings this past week for nominee Ketanji Jackson:
Ketanji Jackson (March 22): Well Senator, I would want to discuss with the other justices their views, and understand all the various potential issues related to cameras in the courtroom before I took a position on it.
The latest congressional bill to bring cameras to federal court was introduced about a year ago by Grassley and co-sponsors, both Republican and Democrat. But there’s been little action on it since.
Sen. Grassley: I think the more understanding you get of how our political process works or how the nonpolitical process of the judiciary works, the stronger our democracy is.
After the Lindbergh trial, Charles Lindbergh was said to be so traumatized by the public attention, he secretly took his family to England under assumed names, where they remained for several years, shunning the spotlight and the harsh light of the cameras they'd had to face in court.
Sharyl (on-camera): The congressional proposals would allow the presiding judge in all federal courts the discretion to allow cameras, while protecting the identities of witnesses and jurors when necessary.