THE United States may be on the verge of turning the strobe lights on in its federal courts. This could mean that US Supreme Court proceedings will be carried on television. Millions of viewers will gain broad access to the workings of the world's most prestigious judicial system. Cameras are already permitted in courtrooms in more than 40 states. The federal judiciary, however, has dragged its feet about television.
Former US Chief Justice Warren Burger was vehemently opposed to conducting legal proceedings under the glare of television lights. His successor William Rehnquist is more amenable to the idea.
In 1988, Mr. Rehnquist appointed a panel of five federal judges to consider revising the rules that now ban TV cameras in federal courts. The panel's preliminary conclusions last summer were not encouraging to those advocating federal courtroom television coverage. The matter is still under discussion, however, and a final report is due this fall.
Meanwhile, news groups, including the American Trial Network - a new 24-hour cable operation owned by Time-Warner - continue to push for a change in policy.
Associate Justice William Brennan Jr., the Supreme Court's senior member, said recently he would favor TV coverage of the high court and predicted it will come to pass.
The court's most junior member, Anthony Kennedy, also is quoted to the effect that cameras in the Supreme Court are ``inevitable.''
Rep. Robert Kastenmeier (D) of Wisconsin also says a change of policy on this matter is in the wings. Mr. Kastenmeier is chairman of the House Judiciary Committee's Subcommittee on Courts, Intellectual Property, and the Administration of Justice.
Opponents of cameras in the courtroom insist that they have the potential for disturbing the delicate balance of the legal process, upstaging the real issues in a case, and slanting the public's view of the law. There is also concern that some lawyers will posture under the TV lights. And judges have suggested that they might lose their anonymity under such instant media glare.
On the other hand, advocates stress the importance of broadening public understanding of the law by watching it practiced in an actual judicial setting. Television coverage, they hope, would help lift the veil of mystery that so often surrounds the courts and frustrates citizens about the fairness of the system.
Now TV viewers often form their views about important legal issues through fictional dramas, such as the network shows like ``LA Law'' and ``Equal Justice,'' and more whimsical depictions including ``Night Court'' and ``Divorce Court.'' These programs are usually overdramatized and may not represent what happens in the real world.
Cameras in the federal courts, as Justice Kennedy suggests, are inevitable. The only issue is how they will be used.
Two suggestions seem in order:
A five-year experiment with television at the federal judicial level, starting in 1991 or 1992. This could begin with the district and circuit courts and expand after two years to the US Supreme Court. This phased-in process would allow time to untangle snarls and address possible abuses.
Adoption of formal guidelines between the media and federal judiciary. These would ensure press freedom and at the same time protect the sanctity of the courtroom.
For example, sensitive sidebar conferences between judges and lawyers and certain voir dire - interrogation of prospective jurors - might be shielded from TV cameras, as they are from radio and print media.
In the end, it will be public television - including educational and legal channels - that will seek extensive courtroom coverage. These stations are more likely to provide viewers with solid background on cases and issues than is network television.
Cameras in the courtroom may entertain viewers. Used judiciously, they will also help enlighten them to the effectiveness of the judiciary in a law-abiding society.