WASHINGTON -- For the first time in history, the federal courts will allow live television broadcasts of actual cases in court -- in a narrow experiment that is to last three years, starting next summer.
The U.S. Judicial Conference, policy-making arm of the federal courts, approved yesterday a pilot program to permit television cameras and tape recorders into courtrooms -- but only for civil trials and appeals.
Federal court rules flatly ban broadcast of criminal trials and appeals, and the conference committee that suggested the experiment did not even consider whether that should be changed, according to conference spokesman David Sellers.
Though limited to civil cases, the experiment could bring to American living rooms some major federal proceedings. Civil cases often deal with the rights of minorities and women and can include constitutional challenges to a wide variety of laws, such as those restricting abortion.
For years, state courts have allowed some form of broadcasting of court proceedings; the list of states doing so has grown to 45. The federal conference, however, had refused regularly to relax the flat federal ban, despite repeated requests from the news media.
Maryland has allowed camera coverage of civil appeals for several years, and state rules have allowed cameras at civil trials if neither side objected. The state now has a law barring television coverage of criminal trials and appeals. Court officials are re-examining the state's overall policy on cameras in the courts.
The federal court agency, bowing to what Mr. Sellers said the conference considered to be "the inevitable" and worrying somewhat that Congress might try to force it to change its position, agreed to its committee's idea for a "pilot program" limited to six U.S. District Courts and to two U.S. Circuit Courts of Appeals.
The experiment will not apply to the Supreme Court. It sets its own procedures, and the justices have long banned all cameras from their public proceedings. Insiders indicate there is no chance that the court will change its mind any time soon.
Although the conference spokesman said the 26-member committee voted overwhelmingly for the experiment, he noted that three of the judges had spoken out against any cameras in trials or appeals, even on an experimental basis.
Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, who chairs the conference but usually does not vote and who named the special committee to study the cameras issue afresh, spoke in favor of the experiment, it was understood.
U.S. District Judge Frank A. Kaufman of Baltimore and Sam J. Ervin III, the chief judge of the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals (whose jurisdiction includes Maryland), were at yesterday's meeting, but it was unknown how they voted.
Under yesterday's guidelines, no federal court will be required to permit cameras to cover its civil proceedings; only those that volunteer will be included among the eight chosen for the experiment. Mr. Sellers said no courts had yet been selected.
The pilot program is to start July 1 and end three years later. In each court, the presiding judge has the option of granting or denying coverage, and there will be no appeal from any ruling for or against it.
Representative Robert W. Kastenmeier, D-Wis., the chairman of a judiciary subcommittee that deals with the courts, had been applying mild pressure to open federal courts to television coverage. He praised the conference vote yesterday.
The guidelines are very detailed on how television coverage is to be handled. Aside from confining coverage to civil cases, the guidelines bar any camera from showing the jury or any single juror and forbid any camera from showing the insignia or call letters of any broadcast station.
The provisions even go so far as to control what the camera operators may wear. Many TV camera crew members wear jeans and other informal clothing; the guidelines specify that they must "wear appropriate business attire."
The broadcast coverage must be done without any government expense.