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.
Today’s hearing on permitting cameras in criminal cases comes as the state’s courts and legislature split on courtroom transparency: the state supreme court has run a pilot program since 2015 and recently began live streaming its own oral arguments. But some legislators seem determined to restrict any broadcast of criminal proceedings.
The Supreme Court has announced that it will release same-day audio of April 25’s oral argument in the travel ban case. Normally audio is not released until the end of the week, but in rare cases the Court has agreed to release it the same day.
Thus continues the Court’s counterproductive policy of keeping oral argument out of public view. We should be long past the days when the general public has to rely on the Court’s feigned generosity to be able to observe and hear arguments as they happen. A single camera in the back of the courtroom, live-broadcasting the arguments without additional commentary (something CSPAN perfected two generations ago), is all that is needed.
The ongoing ban on cameras forces reporters to take notes and rush to get information to the public after the argument has concluded. This compromises accuracy, undermines efficiency, and harms transparency — the key sources of the Court’s public legitimacy. When will the Court will finally out an end to this self-inflicted wound?
Minnesota’s courts recently completed a successful pilot program to allow broadcasts of sentencing and related post-conviction hearings in criminal matters. The Minnesota Supreme Court has also shown strong support for opening its courtrooms to broadcasts in the public interest.
Some members of the state legislature, however, remain unconvinced. Yesterday, the House Public Safety Committee advanced a bill that would severely restrict the broadcast of sentencing hearings, unless everyone involved agrees in advance. The bill also would prohibit the use of state funds for audio or video coverage of criminal proceedings.
Sponsors of the bill argue that witnesses and victims may be reluctant to testify if cameras are running. That sentiment is understandable, but the bill itself is sorely misguided. Proceedings in an open courtroom reflect a careful balance between the rights and sensitivities of victims and witnesses, those of the accused or convicted, and those of the general public. Modern broadcasting tools do not upset this balance; they merely extend its reach outside the courthouse. Indeed, the current practice already prohibits broadcasts of victim statements, witness testimony, or the jury, while still permitting the public to witness the administration of justice.
Attorney Mark Anfinson, a proponent of courtroom broadcasts, nicely summarized the real benefits of the existing system: “What it does is it provides a reassurance, a catharsis, a demonstration of how the justice system works. And that has enormous value to the people whose court system it is, after all.”
Hear, hear. Hopefully the legislature will ultimately reject the bill and allow the state court system to continue serving the public interest by broadcasting certain hearings through both audio and video channels.
In 2015, the Minnesota Supreme Court authorized a pilot program to allow limited audio and video coverage of criminal proceedings in the state trial courts. The pilot ended in December, and the state’s advisory committee on criminal rules has recommended that the pilot procedures be adopted permanently. The Supreme Court is now seeking public comment on this proposal.
Comments are due by March 25, and a hearing will be held in April.