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The U.S. Supreme Court held in 1981 that states may adopt rules permitting cameras and recording equipment in their courts. Since then, all 50 states have done so, but the rules vary widely. In some states visual and audio coverage is permitted in all types of court proceedings that are public, and in others such coverage is permitted only in appellate courts.
Camera coverage of federal courts is more limited. The U.S. Supreme Court prohibits camera coverage of its proceedings, though it does release audio recordings of each week's oral arguments at the end of each week and has provided near-contemporaneous access to the audio recordings in several high-profile proceedings since the presidential election cases of 2000. The Judicial Conference of the United States, which makes policy and rules for the federal courts, allows federal circuit courts to permit cameras in appellate arguments. Only two federal appellate courts, the U.S. Court of Appeals in New York City (2nd Cir.) and the U.S. Court of Appeals in San Francisco (9th Cir.), have voted to allow camera recording of oral arguments.
Cameras are typically not allowed in federal trial courts. But the Judicial Conference announced in September 2010 a pilot project to allow cameras in some federal district courtroom proceedings. The conference said that only civil cases will be included in the program. Although details of the program (known as the Digital Video Pilot Project) are still in development, participation in the program is to be at the discretion of the trial judge, with the parties to the court proceedings having the opportunity to veto cameras. The cameras would be set up and operated by court personnel.
Legislative efforts to allow cameras in federal trial and appellate courts on an experimental basis have been introduced repeatedly in Congress, but have never passed. Most recently, the U.S. Senate's Cameras in the Courtroom Act of 2011, introduced with an eye toward arguments in three cases challenging the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act in late March 2012, would have required the Supreme Court to televise its public proceedings. The Supreme Court declined the news media's request for camera access to the high-profile health care arguments but did agree to release same-day audio recordings of the arguments, scheduled for nearly six hours over three days.
Recent proceedings in the high-profile challenge to California's ban on same-sex marriage continue to sharpen the debate over camera use in federal courts. The U.S. Supreme Court prohibited the trial court from broadcasting the trial at the time, but the appellate arguments were broadcast live. After the fact, the trial judge ruled that a video recording of the proceeding should be made available to the public, but the Ninth Circuit reversed that order and held that the trial judge's guarantees to the parties that the tapes would not be publicly disclosed required the continued sealing of the video.
Read some recent articles from our magazine, The News Media & The Law, on camera access, electronic coverage, including the use of Twitter, and the recent issue of coverage in the California federal courts (Winter 2011, Winter 2010).