About three dozen House Democrats, led by Rep. Adam B. Schiff (Calif.), are calling for televising the federal trials of former president Donald Trump on charges related to the 2020 election and the retention of classified documents.
In a letter to Judge Roslynn Mauskopf, who oversees the administration of federal courts, the lawmakers argued that the move would bolster public acceptance of the outcome.
“Given the historic nature of the charges brought forth in these cases, it is hard to imagine a more powerful circumstance for televised proceedings,” said the letter, dated Thursday. “If the public is to fully accept the outcome, it will be vitally important for it to witness, as directly as possible, how the trials are conducted, the strength of the evidence adduced and the credibility of witnesses.”
A spokeswoman for Mauskopf’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
While cameras are common in state and local courtrooms, they are generally not allowed in federal courtrooms. The Judicial Conference of the United States, the policymaking body for the courts, has allowed some pilot programs in recent decades focused on civil cases. Lawmakers in both parties have unsuccessfully pushed legislation to allow more transparency.
During the pandemic, court policies were loosened, with some federal courts using Zoom for hearings and live-streaming audio of oral arguments.
A lawyer for Trump has also suggested that they would like the expected trial on 2020 election-related charges to be televised.
Last month, after Trump revealed that he had received a target letter from special counsel Jack Smith, Trump attorney John Lauro said he would welcome additional transparency.
“I would hope that the Department of Justice would join in that effort so that we can take the curtain away and all Americans can see what’s happening,” Lauro told Fox News.
A spokesman for Smith declined to comment about the prospect of televised proceedings.
The federal district court in Washington where Trump is likely to be tried on election-related charges has never allowed cameras.
Opponents to cameras in the courtroom argue that they can be disruptive, intimidate witnesses and cause judges and jurors to lose their relative anonymity.
Jordan Singer, a law professor at New England Law in Boston, said the Judicial Conference has been wary of cameras for fear they could influence the behavior of people in the courtroom and that the media might use snippets of the proceedings taken out of context.
“Allowing video in the Trump cases increases both of these risks substantially,” Singer said in an email. “The Judicial Conference does not want a solemn criminal proceeding to be turned into a circus, inside or outside the courtroom. Or if a circus atmosphere is inevitable, at least they don’t want to contribute to it.”
One possible compromise, he suggested, would be to provide a live stream that is entirely under the court’s control. By doing so, Singer suggested, the court could place cameras unobtrusively and “lower the risk of intimidation or pandering” while making it possible for interested citizens to follow the entire proceeding in context.
Gabe Roth, executive director of Fix the Court, a group that advocates for more openness and accountability from federal courts, argued that televising the Trump trials would be a positive because “more access to primary sources is always a positive thing.”
But Roth said the chance of it happening are “very, very slim” in part because members of the Judicial Conference of the United States generally are not of a generation that appreciates the wide use of video.
“The decision-makers are not people with Instagram and TikTok accounts,” he said.
Moreover, Roth said, “Courts change policies slower than a battleship turns right or left.”
Cristina Tilley, a law professor at Iowa College of Law, who has conducted research on cameras in the courtroom, said she is skeptical that televising the trial would accomplish what the House Democrats are seeking.
“If their objective is that they want people to accept the outcome, whatever it is, I’m not sure that televising the trial accomplishes that,” she said.
Tilley said her research shows that the emotional “uptake” by viewers of vivid courtroom testimony can cloud their appreciation of drier aspects of the case that are crucial for how jurors ultimately evaluate charges against a defendant.
She cited the 2011 trial of Casey Anthony, an Orlando woman who was acquitted of murdering her toddler in a widely televised trial. People who watched the trial intently were most upset with the verdict, Tilley said.
“They absolutely failed to appreciate that the prosecutors didn’t prove the case to the legal standard they had to meet,” she said.
In Trump’s election-related case, she said, reactions to images of the insurrection or testimony from Trump could undercut the understanding of whether prosecutors make their case on each of the counts he faces, Tilley argued.
Trump’s arraignment Thursday in front of a federal magistrate judge in Washington was not televised. During the proceedings, Trump pleaded not guilty to charges that he conspired to overturn the results of the 2020 election, appearing in the federal courthouse that sits just blocks away from where his supporters stormed the U.S. Capitol to keep him in power on Jan. 6, 2021.
Trump also faces a federal trial in Florida scheduled in May in the classified documents case that Smith brought against him.
On Friday, Trump filed a written not guilty plea to a superseding indictment in that case, which means he does not have to appear for an in-person arraignment next week. Trump pleaded not guilty to the charges in the initial indictment at a hearing in Miami on June 13.
The lawmakers’ letter to Mauskopf, who serves as director of the administrative office of the U.S. Courts, argued that “[i]t is imperative the Conference ensures timely access to accurate and reliable information surrounding these cases and all of their proceedings, given the extraordinary national importance to our democratic institutions and the need for transparency.”
House members who signed the letter included Democrats Rep. Bennie G. Thompson, who chaired the House select committee that investigated the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol, as well as Reps. Jamie B. Raskin (Md.) and Zoe Lofgren (Calif.).
Rep. Gerald E. Connolly (D-Va.), another of the signers, said in a tweet that the “American people have a right to know what is said in cases that concern us all,” adding that it’s “in everyone’s best interest to know the truth.”
Connolly has previously introduced legislation that would allow Supreme Court proceedings to be televised.
If the Judicial Conference fails to act, lawmakers, at least in theory, could pass legislation opening up federal courts to cameras.
Schiff spokeswoman Marisol said it’s too early to consider going that route, and that the House Democrats are “taking it one step at a time.”
Devlin Barrett, Spencer S. Hsu and Ann E. Marimow contributed to this report.