WASHINGTON -- A federal judicial committee voted yesterday to allow television coverage of federal criminal trials, the first step toward relaxing a half-century-old ban on such broadcasts.
If the proposal makes it through several more layers of review, federal criminal trials could be televised and broadcast on radio starting in about two years -- at least on an experimental basis.
TV broadcasts of criminal trials are allowed in 39 states, but a ban has existed under a federal court rule. Yesterday's action by a rules advisory committee was the opening move toward ending that ban.
Broadcasts could occur only if the ban is lifted by the U.S. Judicial Conference, the policy-making arm of the federal courts, and approved by the Supreme Court and Congress. Most rule changes that get Supreme Court approval are accepted routinely by Congress.
It is possible that broadcasts of criminal trials could be cleared but that the Supreme Court would continue to bar broadcasts of its sessions. It generally is not bound by rules covering lower federal courts.
Televised trials in state courtrooms have grown in popularity, drawing sizable audiences to such cases as the Rodney King police brutality case in California and the Lorena Bobbitt case in Virginia.
Court TV, a network that broadcasts trials on cable TV, has provided the fullest coverage of state trials and is among the organizations lobbying for a relaxation of the federal ban. Yesterday, Court TV's board chairman, Steven Brill, told the rules advisory committee here that his network would have wanted to cover such trials as the World Trade Center bombing case and the trial growing out of the federal raid on the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas.
Since July 1991, eight federal courts have been experimenting with broadcast coverage of civil cases. But the ban written into federal criminal court rules has kept U.S. courts from considering a test in criminal cases.
The experiment in civil cases, generally approved by judges, lawyers and others taking part, has been extended through this year. The Judicial Conference is expected to take up that issue again in September and may also consider the question of criminal trial coverage.