Federal courts rush to shut loophole for TV cameras Policy-making body slaps N.Y. judge who defied ban

March 13, 1996|By Lyle Denniston | Lyle Denniston,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - The policy-making arm of the federal courts struck back yesterday after a federal judge defied its nationwide ban on television cameras in the national courts.

The 26-member U.S. Judicial Conference voted at a closed-door meeting here to urge federal judges across the country to adopt rules forbidding any further breaches like that last week by U.S. District Judge Robert J. Ward of New York City.

Judge Ward, concluding that he was not bound by the Judicial Conference ban, decided to permit Court TV to broadcast lawyers' arguments in a civil case against New York officials, which claimed that a city welfare agency fails to protect children.

The judge said he had the power to do so under local rules of the federal trial courts in New York City, which allow each judge to grant permission to bring cameras into a courthouse.

The Judicial Conference, after a debate that reportedly included fervent statements of opposition to cameras in federal courts, retaliated against Judge Ward.

The conference voted "to strongly urge" rules-making panels of judges to act "not to permit the taking of photographs and radio and television coverage in U.S. District Courts."

Those panels also should wipe out any rules like the one Judge Ward relied on, the conference added. Conference members who reacted to Judge Ward were said to have accused him, during yesterday's debate, of "skirting" the policy even though it was not binding on him.

Circuit Judge Gilbert S. Merritt of Nashville, Tenn., a conference member and chairman of its executive committee, said the vote in favor of a firm new ban on cameras was "pretty strong." The move was led by U.S. District Judge Michael M. Mihm of Peoria, Ill., a vocal opponent of cameras in any court.

While trying to make sure that the federal trial courts are not shown on cable or broadcast stations, the conference voted to create a small opening in the curtain it has put up around all federal courts.

By 14-12, it voted to let the 13 federal appeals courts decide for themselves whether to allow lawyers' arguments to be broadcast on TV or radio. Only lawyers and judges appear in such hearings; there are no jurors or witnesses.

And, in a separate vote, the conference urged Congress to leave it up to a federal judge in Denver to decide whether to allow closed-circuit televising of the Oklahoma City bombing trial when it is held in federal court in Denver. Such closed-circuit broadcast would be designed solely to allow victims or their families to see the trial.

Pub Date: 3/13/96

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