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Philadelphia Bail Fund v. Arraignment Court Magistrate Judges

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  1. Court Access

Amicus brief filed by the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and 14 media organizations

Court: U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit

Date Filed: June 5, 2020

Update: In a ruling issued on Sept. 29, 2020, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit reversed the district court’s decision, holding that the First Amendment does not require courts to create records of proceedings or allow members of the public to create such records. After the Philadelphia Bail Fund petitioned to have the case heard before the entire court, the Reporters Committee and 19 media organizations filed a friend-of-the-court brief on Nov. 19, 2020, urging the Third Circuit to grant the petition and affirm the district court’s decision in favor of the Bail Fund. The brief argues that whether the public has a First Amendment right to record judicial proceedings with no official transcript is a question of exceptional importance and that rehearing en banc is necessary to maintain uniformity of Third Circuit precedent. On Jan. 11, 2021, the Third Circuit granted Philadelphia Bail Fund’s petition for rehearing en banc.

Background: In 2019, the Philadelphia Bail Fund, a nonprofit advocating for reform of Philadelphia’s bail system, filed a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of certain Pennsylvania court rules that prevent the public, including the news media, from making audio recordings of bail hearings.

In February 2020, the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania granted summary judgment for the nonprofit, ruling that the arraignment court magistrate judges must either provide the public official audio recordings or transcripts of the proceedings or allow members of the public and the news media to make their own recordings.

The magistrate judges appealed the decision to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit, arguing, among other things, that the First Amendment does not guarantee the right to record audio during court hearings.

Our Position: The Third Circuit should affirm the district court’s ruling that the Philadelphia Bail Fund has the right to record bail hearings.

  • The First Amendment right of access applies to bail hearings.
  • The challenged rules limit the ability of the press to report about bail hearings.

Quote: “In the absence of an official transcript or recording, the challenged rules prohibiting journalists from recording bail hearings impermissibly burden their ability to report about such judicial proceedings for the benefit of the public at large.”

Related: In January 2020, the Reporters Committee and the Pennsylvania NewsMedia Association filed a friend-of-the-court brief urging a Pennsylvania district court to deny a defendant’s motion to dismiss in a similar case, arguing for the public’s right to record in bail hearings and other proceedings when official transcripts and recordings aren’t available.

The Reporters Committee maintains an “Open Courts Compendium,” which includes information about court access laws for each state and federal circuit.