Breakthroughs for cameras in courtrooms in last two states

Page Number: 
30

From the Summer 2001 issue of The News Media & The Law, page 30.



Mississippi and South Dakota, the final holdout states that for decades have resisted allowing cameras in the courtroom, have lifted some restrictions and now permit camera coverage of supreme court proceedings.

Mississippi has begun broadcasting its supreme court hearings, and a similar system will soon be in place for state appellate courts, although the state has no plans to end the ban on cameras in trial courts.

In South Dakota, the state supreme court has approved a pilot program to allow cameras into its proceedings, becoming the 50th state to allow cameras into the courts.

Meanwhile, a Connecticut judge has barred cameras in the high-profile murder case involving a Kennedy nephew. And the U.S. Senate will again consider legislation to allow federal judges to decide whether to allow cameras in their courtrooms.

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The sun shines in Mississippi

Mississippians gained unprecedented access to the state court system in April when the state supreme court allowed cameras in its chambers for the first time.

In Mississippi, the change came as a direct result of the 2000 presidential election and the ensuing court battle, Bush v. Gore. Chief Justice Edwin Pittman said the public reaction to the televised court hearings in Florida and the delayed audio broadcast of the hearing before the U.S. Supreme Court convinced him the time had come to end the ban on court broadcasts in Mississippi.

"I thought, if they can accomplish this in Florida, then we should do it. It was good for the American people to have this openness in such an important case,'' Pittman said. "I realized how fortunate we were that a highly interested public could stay informed without newscasters."

The goal, Pittman said, was to make the court more accessible and more accountable to the public.

Cameras operated by the media remain prohibited in the courtroom. But the state installed five voice-activated video cameras in the court's chambers. A wide-angle camera is focused on the court's nine justices, while another camera captures attorneys at the podium. The system cost about $55,000. The hearings are preserved on CDs.

Radio and television stations have access to video connections in the lobby of the court. Five portals allow stations to plug into the system.

Pittman said the system allows greater access while remaining sensitive to concerns that the presence of the media could affect the court. The voice-activated cameras are less obtrusive, he said.

The court is broadcasting the hearings on the Internet at www.mssc.state.ms.us. The site, which also contains an electronic version of the court docket, received about 400 visitors in May, according to court officials.

They expect the number to increase dramatically as people learn about the site and when a high-profile case reaches the court.

The media also have been slow to use the hook-ups, largely because a well-known case has not yet reached the court. But local television stations are eager to take advantage of the new rules.

"Anyway we can get video -- it makes it easier on us,'' said Gene Moore, the news director at WJTV in Jackson. "This change is good for us."

Mississippi trial courts remain closed to cameras. Moore said allowing cameras into lower courts is badly needed. He recalled a recent sexual harassment lawsuit involving the local police department. The testimony was emotional; television crews could not record any of it.

"It would have been good for us to be in the courtroom. We weren't able to get the actual emotion in the courtroom,'' he said. Moore added that the ban on cameras in trial courts makes it much more difficult for television stations to gain interviews with jurors after trials. Photographers, who do not see the jury from outside the courtroom, have trouble identifying jurors and may have to resort to chasing them down outside the court.

Pittman said that although Mississippi appellate courts likely will adopt a camera system similar to the one in the supreme court, trial courts will remain closed to cameras. But he has asked trial courts to review their procedures in the wake of changes in the higher courts.

"We're going to see how this works,'' he said. "We have no plans to change any rule (in the trial courts) at this time."

Pittman acknowledged that the court hearings will never have a huge audience. He envisioned people occasionally signing on via the Internet to look in on the court. And he raved about the access for law students in Mississippi and other states who now can look in on oral arguments without having to leave their desks at home.

The sunshine will be good for the court system, Pittman predicted.

"There's always been a certain amount of mysticism about what we do,'' he said. "This is really about the people of Mississippi having a chance to look in on their court. All of us will look better because we know the public can look in. It makes all of us -- the judges, the lawyers -- more accountable."

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Public reprimand for trial judge who allowed cameras into court

The Mississippi Supreme Court in June reprimanded a state trial judge for allowing media cameras in his courtroom.

In 1998, Lee County Justice Court Judge Pat Carr allowed the arraignment of two murder suspects in his courtroom to be photographed and recorded. Some of the footage was later broadcast. In 1999, Carr presided over an initial appearance for a man charged with making threatening phone calls. Carr allowed the print and broadcast news media to photograph and record the hearing. Carr also allowed the press to photograph and record the initial appearance of a kidnaping suspect who was being held without bond.

The Mississippi Commission on Judicial Performance filed a complaint against Carr last year. Carr did not contest the facts in the complaint and agreed to the public reprimand.

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South Dakota approves cameras in Supreme Court

South Dakota became the 50th state to allow cameras in its courtrooms July 26 as the state supreme court adopted a policy allowing television and still photographers to record its proceedings.

South Dakota Chief Justice Robert Miller said the camera coverage would be allowed as a pilot program subject to an annual review by the court. The decision comes after a task force, which included court officials, journalists and lawyers, met for several months to study the issue.

"We're very pleased with the decision," said Dave Bordewyk, general manager of the of the South Dakota Newspaper Association. "Obviously this has been a long time in coming. Now it's up to the press in South Dakota to demonstrate this can work. When we prove that and the public benefit is demonstrated, then we can look at opening the other courts."

The decision applies only to the state supreme court.

Bordewyk praised Miller, who is retiring from the court later this year. Miller appointed the study group last year and moved quickly to adopt its recommendations.

"A lot of credit goes to the chief justice. There were years of conversations just to get to this point," Bordewyk said.

Barbara Cochran, president of the Radio-Television News Directors Association, praised South Dakota's decision to open its supreme court and vowed to continue to push for greater access elsewhere.

"The decision announced today in South Dakota, the progress we're making in Mississippi, the success we had with the U.S. Supreme Court last year, and pending federal legislation all give us great hope that Americans will soon have direct access to the third branch of government in every state and at the national level, too," Cochran said in a release. (SDCL ch.16-2 (Rule 01-09))

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Senators appeal for cameras in federal courts again

Two senators have re-launched an effort to allow federal judges to open their courtrooms to television cameras.

The Sunshine in the Courtroom Act, sponsored by Sens. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) and Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), would allow federal trial and appellate judges to permit cameras in the courtroom. The bill also would direct the Judicial Conference, the principal policy-making entity for the federal courts, to draft non-binding guidelines that judges can refer to when deciding about coverage of specific cases.

Grassley and Schumer announced at a June 5 press conference on the steps of the U.S. Supreme Court that they would re-introduce the legislation.

The senators said the successful audiocast of Bush v. Gore at the Supreme Court last winter was evidence that televising federal trials would boost public understanding of the court system.

"The Supreme Court's landmark decision to release an audio transcript in Bush v. Gore allowed millions of Americans to reach their own conclusions in one of the most important cases in American history,'' Schumer said. "Allowing cameras in the courtroom would shine even more light on our judicial system, improving public understanding of the judicial process and increasing public scrutiny of our courts."

Grassley said the bill has bipartisan support. He also pointed to a recent study indicating that many Americans cannot identify a Supreme Court justice and know little about the federal courts.

"The best way to maintain confidence and a better understanding of the judicial system, where the federal judiciary holds tremendous power, is to let the sunshine in by opening up the courtroom to public scrutiny through broadcasting," he said.

Sen. Wayne Allard (R-Colo.) and Rep. Steve Chabot (R-Ohio) attended the press conference and support the legislation.

All fifty states now permit some form of audio-visual coverage in their courtrooms. At least 37 states directly televise trials. Grassley and Schumer cited studies showing that electronic media coverage of those trials has increased the public's understanding of those courts without interfering with court proceedings. (S. 986)

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Connecticut judge eschews 15-year precedent of trial coverage

A Connecticut trial judge court in May denied a request to allow television cameras in the courtroom during the murder trial of Michael Skakel.

Superior Court Judge John F. Kavanewsky's order rejected a request by Court TV to televise the trial of the nephew of the late Sen. Robert F. and Ethel Kennedy. While the order addressed only Court TV, it suggests that Kavanewsky would turn down similar requests to televise the trial.

For more than 15 years, Connecticut law has allowed still and video cameras in the courtroom at the discretion of the trial judge. But all media requests to place cameras in state courtrooms have been denied since the O.J. Simpson murder trial in Los Angeles.

Kavanewsky has not ruled on a motion filed by prosecutors seeking a gag order on Skakel's attorney, Mickey Sherman. Sherman has blasted the state's case against Skakel and publicly questioned the credibility of prosecution witnesses. He told The Hartford Courant the potential gag order was only a "minor constraint."

"It just means I can't call them liars and morons anymore," Sherman told the Courant.

Skakel, 40, is accused of murdering his 15-year-old Greenwich neighbor, Martha Moxley, in 1975 when he was a juvenile. (Connecticut v. Skakel)

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Judge denies request from prosecutor to remove photographer

A Utah judge rejected a prosecutor's bid to remove a "biased" photographer from the courtroom during a high-profile bigamy trial in May.

Juab County Prosecutor David Leavitt sought to bar photographer Leah Hogsten of The Salt Lake Tribune from the trial. Leavitt claimed Hogsten was biased in favor of the defendant, Tom Green. Green was later convicted of four counts of bigamy.

Leavitt complained in court about the "familiar" nature of an e-mail the photographer had sent to Green. The purpose of the message was to notify Green that photographs of him would be published in an upcoming edition of the Tribune.

In rejecting the request, Utah Fourth District Judge Guy Burningham said it would have been improper to interfere with the media coverage of the trial.