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Legal Learning: Klobuchar leads way on courtroom cameras

United States Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., and Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, have introduced legislation to allow cameras in federal courtrooms. That's a Democrat and a Republican working together in dysfunctional Washington, D.C.

Co-sponsors include Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-South Carolina, Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vermont, and Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas.

According to Klobuchar, "Today, you can watch what's happening on the Senate floor on C-SPAN or city council meetings on Facebook Live, but you can't see the proceedings of a federal courtroom on TV. That doesn't make sense, especially when the decisions made in those courtrooms seriously affect the lives of everyday Americans. By allowing cameras in federal courtrooms, our bipartisan bill will help increase transparency and boost public confidence in our democracy."

The "Sunshine in the Courtroom Act," as they call it, grants the presiding judge the discretion to allow cameras in courts, while protecting the identities of witnesses and jurors when necessary or upon request. It also prohibits media coverage of private conversations between clients and counsel, between opposing attorneys, and between counsel and the judge. The bill contains a three-year sunset clause, requiring Congress to evaluate how media access is impacting the judiciary.

The proposal makes sense especially for federal appeals courts and the U.S. Supreme Court. There are no witnesses in those courts, only judges and attorneys. The public should have a right to hear and see what the parties have to say in a dispute of general interest.

The recent hearing about President Donald Trump's travel ban in the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals was broadcast live by National Public Radio. It was truly exciting for me to hear the cogent arguments made by the lawyers and the penetrating questions asked by the three judges. I wish I could have seen it. I thought after the hearing that Judge Richard Clifton, a George W. Bush appointee, would side with the government, but the judges ruled unanimously that the travel ban was unconstitutional.

I've had some experience with cameras in the courtroom. Some years ago I defended a murder case in Mankato. With the agreement of all parties and the judge, the local TV station was allowed to film (and broadcast) the opening and closing arguments of the attorneys, and the reading of the verdict. A year later, we did the same thing in another murder case I was defending. In both cases there were no problems. The public was much better informed than in non-televised cases about how the cases turned out as they did, and why the results were fair and just. As far as I know, those are the only two cases in Minnesota history that have been televised.

Objection overruled. Congress should pass Klobuchar's bill. The nation has waited far too long to see what its judges are doing.

James H. Manahan is a Harvard Law School graduate and was named one of Minnesota's Top Ten Attorneys. He now handles family law, wills, and probate in and around Lake County, and does mediation everywhere. He writes a regular column on legal issues for the News-Chronicle. The opinions expressed in this column are those of its author and are not to be attributed to his employer.