Anyone hoping to watch the trial of Paula Jones' sex-harassment lawsuit against President Clinton on television will be disappointed. The case is in federal court, where electronic coverage is taboo.
Some in Congress want to end the longtime TV-coverage ban imposed by the federal judiciary, an effort whose supporters include liberal and conservative lawmakers. But guess what. Judicial leaders do not like the idea.The House Judiciary Committee this week approved a bill that, among other things, would allow federal trial judges to decide individually whether TV cameras get into their courtrooms.
Similar legislation stalled in the last session of Congress. There is no chance the new bill will become law before the May 27 start of the Jones vs. Clinton trial.
"The legislation does seem to be fraught with problems," says David Sellers, a spokesman for the federal courts. "The bill would create the uncomfortable situation of having a federal rule of procedure and judicial policy in conflict with a federal law."
Earlier this month, Supreme Court Justice David Souter was more blunt as he adamantly opposed televised federal trials while testifying before a House subcommittee. "I don't think we need any extended argument to point out the effect these cameras can have on a live trial," Souter said.
Do the initials O.J. ring a bell?
The policymaking U.S. Judicial Conference currently lets the 12 federal appeals courts decide for themselves whether to allow televised coverage of lawyers' arguments in civil - not criminal - hearings. The conference, however, does not approve of any TV coverage of federal trials.
That policy bucks the trend in state courts. Televised trials are allowed in 44 states.
So who is pushing for televised federal trials? Advocates generally belong to one of two groups - news media organizations and others who have long sought such access or conservatives who believe the coverage will flush out judges they suspect are power-grabbing "activists."
"We support using cameras as one means of making judges accountable," says Peter Flaherty of the conservative National Legal and Policy Center. "As we enter the 21st century, the federal judiciary should enter the 20th century. Judges' opposition smacks of the elitism we have come to expect from the federal bench."
Bruce Collins, corporate vice president at C-SPAN, also supports the legislation. "Camera news organizations ought to have the same right of access as the print people," he says. Acknowledging that some of his allies have different agendas, Collins adds, "We don't associate ourselves with any of those other motivations."