Texas Court of Criminal Appeals introduces courtroom cameras

Thanks to recent state legislation, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals will began posting video of oral arguments online later this year. The legislation may also open the door for the state’s highest court for criminal matters to broadcast some oral arguments live.

The members of the court do not sound particularly thrilled about the move, although they are trying to maintain a neutral stance now that the legislation has gone through.  Said Presiding Judge Sharon Keller: “We decided years ago that we don’t want cameras in courtroom, but a lot of those judges are gone now, and I don’t know what the new judges think. But it does seem to be the wave of the future.”

Former Texas Chief Justice Wallace Jefferson strongly supported the move, which also increases pressure on the United States Supreme Court to permit video recording of its oral arguments.

The U.S. Supreme Court justices have been famously reticent to employ courtroom cameras, even for mere recording (as opposed to live streaming) purposes. Their explanations have also become more odd and less supportable as time goes on.  But as the public increasingly gets access to courtrooms through video, the Supreme Court will face growing pressure to conform its practices to that of other courts.

Organization theory offers an explanation why.  The new institutional view holds as a key tenet that organizations working in the same field will conform to certain practices and structures in order to preserve and build their legitimacy.  Put another way, when several organizations do work in the same area of endeavor, the norms and values of that practice area inform each organization’s behavior.  Moreover, because organizations need legitimacy to survive and thrive, they look to general practices in the field as a good sign of what is considered legitimate.

Bringing it back to courtroom cameras, the theory applies like this: 29 states already use video technology in their courtrooms, and the federal court system itself employed an extensive pilot project for recording selected district court proceedings from 2011 to 2015.  The existence of cameras in so many places–and without any significant disruption to the administration of justice–makes them seem common and standard, and the courts that employ them legitimate.  Lawyers get used to them.  So do judges.  The public and legislature likes them, even if they never actually consult the videos.  Having cameras in place increases perceptions of access and transparency, and accordingly the courts’ own legitimacy.

Ultimately, these facts may create pressures on the Supreme Court that will end its holdout.  We may need much more time, and a few new justices, before it happens.  But unless cameras prove to concretely compromise the administration of justice, the methodical trudge toward placing them inside One First Street continues.


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