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TV Cameras in Court Gain State Bar's Backing

Trials: President cites public's right to know. Judges would still have discretion to pull the plug.

April 21, 1996|HENRY WEINSTEIN | TIMES LEGAL AFFAIRS WRITER

The governing board of the State Bar of California for the first time Saturday endorsed giving judges the discretion to permit cameras in the courtroom.

The measure was approved after a spirited debate in which bar President James E. Towery of San Jose said there was a critical reason to allow televised trials: "What goes on in our courtrooms is the public's business."

Sacramento City Atty. Samuel Jackson urged the board to retain the bar's policy of opposition to televising trials, which was enacted in 1980, four years before the State Judicial Council gave judges discretion to televise trials. He said the O.J. Simpson trial showed a variety of problems with courtroom television, in particular the lawyers and the judge "playing to the cameras."

Ironically, Towery said the Simpson trial inspired the board to reverse the policy even as the case precipitated a backlash against cameras in many other quarters.

In October, immediately after Simpson was acquitted of murdering his ex-wife and a friend of hers, Gov. Pete Wilson came out for a ban on courtroom television. In February, a special task force of the State Judicial Council issued a proposal to impose new restrictions on what can be televised.

In particular, the Judicial Council has called for a ban on televising any proceedings that are not seen by the jury, including preliminary hearings and evidentiary hearings during a trial.

If such a rule had existed during the Simpson trial, there could have been no televising of the dramatic hearing in which Superior Court Judge Lance A. Ito considered how many of the racially charged, tape-recorded comments of former LAPD Det. Mark Fuhrman could be heard by the jury.

The Judicial Council is scheduled to take a final vote on the proposal May 17. The recommendation adopted by the Board of Governors, which is the policymaking body of the state bar, will be sent to the council this week.

The resolution adopted by the bar Saturday supports the council's 13 criteria for a judge to consider in deciding whether to allow cameras in the courtroom. They include: importance of maintaining public trust and confidence in the judicial system, the privacy rights of the participants, and the effect on witnesses who would have access to the televised testimony of prior witnesses. The bar recommended that the Judicial Council add another key factor to the list: fairness to the parties.

Peter Kaye, the editorial director of San Diego television station KNSD, one of the board's six nonlawyer members, said that if the board continued its opposition to cameras in the courtroom, it would give the media a great story: "State bar rushes pell-mell into the 18th century." He said the legal system had a great opportunity to shine in the Simpson case, but the participants "blew it. They all behaved like idiots. Don't blame the messenger. If you ban cameras, the F. Lee Baileys of the world will just go outside" the courthouse and hold news conferences.

The bar and the Judicial Council are only two of the interested parties in the controversy.

Last week, the Assembly Judiciary Committee rejected one bill that would have banned courtroom cameras. It also took steps to take control of electronic news coverage away from the State Judicial Council and put it directly with the Legislature.

The committee voted 8 to 0 in favor of a measure by Assemblyman Tom Woods (R-Shasta), a former radio reporter, that would change the rule on television cameras into statutory law. That would effectively prevent the Judicial Council from barring cameras or enacting further restrictions on their use without legislative approval. Wilson has vowed to veto that measure if it comes to him.

In other actions, the board voted in favor of a number of proposed jury reforms. Among them are instituting appropriate procedures to allow jurors to ask questions during a trial, clarifying jury instructions and providing written copies of jury instructions to all jurors in all cases.

The board deadlocked on a new president for 1996-97. Thomas Stolpman, a Los Angeles trial lawyer, and John McGuckin, the San Francisco-based general counsel of the Bank of California, each got 11 votes. Although board rules provide that Towery could have voted to break the tie, he deferred a final vote until the board's next meeting June 1.

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