Boston — Many judges say "yes." Some lawyers says "no." But in many states the jury is still out on the question of cameras in court. Meanwhile, millions of Americans are having their first glimpses of justice in action --living rooms.
Television and still cameras, once banned from courtrooms, are gradually gaining limited, although often reluctant, acceptance.
While filming in federal courts remains forbidden, 31 states have cleared the way for such coverage in at least some of their judicial proceedings.
All but one of these have made the move, often on an experimental basis, within the past six years. And during the past six months alone, cameras have gained admittance for the first time in Arkansas, Maryland, and New York, although in the latter only at appellate proceedings, and arrangements have been made for the beginning of court filming later this year in Kentucky and Rhode Island.
Similar proposals are, or have been, under consideration in at least seven other states --Connecticut, Michigan, Mississippi, Nebraska, Utah, Vermont, and Wyoming.
The trend toward increased use of cameras in judicial proceedings can be expected to continue, says Jag Upall, senior staff associate of the Williamsburg , Virginia-based National Center for State Courts. Judicial leaders "more and more are recognizing the importance for people to understand what is going on in their courts," he notes.
This is despite the continued opposition to cameras in courtrooms by the American Bar Association, which has been on record against such coverage since shortly after the much publicized 1935 New Jersey trial and conviction of Bruno Richard Hauptmann for the kidnap-murder of the infant son of aviation pioneer Charles Lindbergh.
A proposal to amend the ABA's position was last considered and rejected in February 1979, and it is uncertain when the matter might be brought up again.
Much could depend on whether the bar group's board of governors goes along with a recommendation to seek outside funds for an independent study of the impact of cameras and recorders on court proceedings.
Critics of cameras in the courtroom contend that such coverage, no matter how inconspicuous, tends to be distracting if not intimidating to participants in the proceedings, thus undermining the right to a fair trial.
Such arguments, however, failed to sway the US Supreme Court, in its 8-to-0 Jan. 26 decision declining to overturn the 1977 Florida-court burglary conviction of two former Miami Beach police officers. Their attorneys, who had unsuccessfully objected to television coverage, had maintained that the electronic filming of the proceedings violated the defendants' constitutional rights.
The issue thus was not whether television should be allowed in courtrooms but rather the propriety of such when either side objects.
Under Florida cameras-in-court regulations the judge has full say on such coverage.
Some of the other states, however, make it possible for either the defense counsel or prosecutor to veto such equipment.
This was the initial arrangement in California when it began its current cameras-in-the-court experiment last July. Since the US Supreme Court ruling in January, however, the rules for the state's television coverage have been changed, vesting in the trial judge the final say when objections are lodged.
Of the 29 states where there has been at least some measure of television or still-camera court coverage, 22 so provide for both trial and appellate proceedings. They are Alabama, Alaska, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Iowa, Louisiana, Maryland, Massachusetts, Montana, Nevada, New Jersey, New Mexico, Ohio, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Washington, West Virginia, and Wisconsin.
The remaining seven -- Arizona, Idaho, Minnesota, New Hampshire, New York, North Dakota, and Texas -- limit cameras to appellate proceedings.
Kentucky, where newly approved rules take effect July 1, and Rhode Island, where a one-year experiment begins Sept. 1, will allow coverage at both trial and appeals courts, at the discretion of the presiding judge.
Television and newspaper photographic coverage varies widely, depending largely on the prominence of the cases and opposition to coverage by participants in proceedings.
Ordinarily, even when filmed gavel to gavel, only small segments are televised, usually as part of regular newscasts.
Perhaps the most notable exception was the 1977 murder trial and conviction of Ronney Zanora, a 15-year-old Florida boy who killed an elderly neighbor after she caught him burglarizing her home.
For several weeks the extensive coverage of the court proceedings was a nightly top attraction on southern Florida television.
As in Florida and most other states, the rules governing such coverage restrict filming to one television and one still camera placed inconspicuously in the courtroom, with supplemental lighting banned.
The film footage and photographs then must be shared by the television stations and other news media covering the proceedings.
Boosters of camera coverage maintain that with the improvement of both equipment and techniques objections of possible disruption once raised no longer apply.
This they maintain was recognized by the US Supreme Court in its January decision denying a new trial to the former Miami Beach policemen. By contrast, in 1964 the then justices of the nation's highest court voted 5 to 4 to overturn a Texas court's swindle conviction of financier Billie Sol Estes whose appeal similarly argued that cameras in court infringed his rights to a fair trial.
Fifteen, or nearly half the states where cameras now are allowed, or soon will be permitted, in at least some courts have adopted such rules on a permanent basis. Included is New Jersey where that setup was approved earlier this year while the experiment in trial proceedings continues.
The one-year Massachusetts experiment, which was to have ended last month, now has been continued through June 1982 by the state's supreme judicial court which has a special committee overseeing the process.
Over the past 12 months, court proceedings in the Bay State have been covered 47 times by television, and newspaper photographers have been on hand 47 times.
In a number of instances, several TV stations and newspapers were on hand at the same time.
The current Maryland cameras-in-court experiment, which began last January, was somewhat blunted May 19, when Gov. Harry Hughes signed into law a measure to exclude coverage of all criminal trials. The statute, the first of its kind in the nation, is viewed by critics as an intrusion by lawmakers into court affairs. The experiment, which now will be limited to civil cases and appellate courts and was provided for by the state's highest court, allows attorneys on either side to veto filming and tape recording.
While going along with the partial curb legislation, the Maryland governor rejected another measure that would have prohibited cameras at all trial proceedings --
Colorado in 1956 was the first state to allow television and still-camera courtroom coverage. But the current trend did not begin until two decades later when Alabama and Washington moved in a similar direction.