The Saskatchewan Court of Appeal is allowing live streaming of an oral argument for the fourth time this week, in a case involving a challenge to Canada’s federal carbon tax. The event has reignited discussion about moving cameras into the trial courts. While this story’s headline suggests that the discussion is more developed than it actually is, it is nice to see increased recognition that courtroom cameras typically carry more benefits than risks.
Regular readers of this blog know that I am a strong advocate of courtroom cameras to promote transparency and educate the public about the work of the courts. So when access to courtroom cameras is abused, I am obligated to note that as well.
In a truly odd case coming out of San Juan County, Washington, the court dismissed assault and trespass charges against a criminal defendant after it was discovered that the local sheriff was manipulating a courtroom camera to view defense documents and a juror’s notebook during trial. The manipulation was only discovered when the defense attorney was reviewing a calendar at the court administrator’s desk during a break in the trial.
Loring [the defense attorney] said she was reviewing a calendar at the desk of Jane Severin, the court administrator, which has two computer monitors — one for work and the other showing views from security cameras in and outside the San Juan County Courthouse. According to court documents, Loring said her attention was drawn to movement of one of the normally stationary cameras. A closer look revealed it was the camera located above the jury box in district court, and that it was panning, tilting and zooming in on the jury box and counsel tables.
The sheriff maintain that any camera manipulation was accidental and unintentional. The judge dismissed the case.
The Indian Express reports:
Ushering in more transparency in the judiciary’s work, the Supreme Court on Wednesday gave its nod to live-streaming of court proceedings, saying this will bring more accountability and enhance the rule of law.
A bench of Chief Justice of India Dipak Misra and Justices A M Khanwilkar and D Y Chandrachud, in two concurring judgements — one by CJI Misra and Justice Khanwilkar and other by Justice Chandrachud — said: “We hold that the cause brought before this court by the protagonists in larger public interest deserves acceptance so as to uphold the constitutional rights of the public, and the litigants in particular.”
Delving into the benefits of allowing this, Justice Chandrachud said, “Above all, sunlight is the best disinfectant.”
India gets it. When will we be able to say that of our Supreme Court?
My latest post for the New England Faculty Blog explores why Brett Kavanaugh’s professed “open mind” about broadcasting Supreme Court arguments may be more than the ordinary confirmation hearing blather.
The Criminal Bar Association in the United Kingdom has offered tentative support for placing cameras in the courtroom, in part as a means to tamp down “aggressive” behavior by barristers. The organization added that any introduction of cameras must be done carefully so as to shield (as necessary)the identity of victims.
The sentiments were echoed by the Transparency Project, a group which campaigns to improve the clarity of family courts. The group also noted its skepticism that courtroom cameras would control aggressive lawyering.
Protecting the identities of witnesses, victims, and jurors has long been a sticking point for the introduction of courtroom cameras. But these issues have exist–and would continue to exist–in any open court setting. As the recent ugliness surrounding the Manafort trial has shown, judges are up to the task of protecting the identities of jurors and witnesses as needed on a case-by-case basis.
The Missouri Supreme Court is allowing expanded access for media tools in its courtrooms, including live Tweeting, electronic note taking, and expanded camera use beyond a single “pool camera.” The updated provisions are the first major change since 1995.
Individual judges will still have the final say over media access in any particular case.
In the wake of the Bill Cosby retrial, which was not televised due to a ban on cameras in Pennsylvania state courts, the Scranton Times-Tribune has editorialized:
[T]he fundamental premise of the United States is that it is a nation of laws — the notion that the law applies to everyone and that no one is beyond its reach. Yet the state government and in most cases, the federal government, regularly take passes on the opportunity to demonstrate that philosophy as it unfolds in the real world of the courtroom.
When a cultural figure like Cosby or a high-ranking public official, like former state Attorney General Kathleen Kane, or an important civic issue such as taxation or gerrymandering ends up in court, cameras should be there to bring citizens into the courtroom to observe the process and watch history as it happens.
Courts long resisted cameras on grounds that they would be disruptive. But technology long ago resolved that problem. Pennsylvania and federal courts should allow televised trials and other proceedings. Doing so would enhance civics education at a time when it is sorely needed.
Meanwhile, UC Berkeley Dean Erwin Chemerinsky has made a similar argument with respect to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Not every courtroom needs a camera, and not every case or hearing is appropriate for public broadcast. But blanket prohibitions on cameras, especially with respect to cases of broad public interest, are increasingly difficult to justify.