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Court limits access to civil trial videotapes

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Court limits access to civil trial videotapes 07/14/97 CALIFORNIA--A temporary order handed down in early June will prevent the public…

Court limits access to civil trial videotapes

07/14/97

CALIFORNIA–A temporary order handed down in early June will prevent the public from purchasing videotapes of civil court proceedings in Orange County.

In part because judges have said that they fear copies would be sold to tabloid television programs, the executive committee of Superior Court judges ruled that members of the public will be permitted only to ask a court reporter to produce a written transcript of the video, a less-descriptive and more expensive option.

Video cameras are used instead of court reporters in 13 of the county’s 95 courtroom and constitute the only record of the proceedings, according to The Orange County Register.

The committee appointed Superior Court Presiding Judge Theodore Millard to assemble a panel of judges to review the issue and suggest a permanent policy.

Under the order, attorneys would have greater access to the tapes than the public. A copy of a videotape is available to lawyers upon signing a pledge that they will not distribute it to the public or the media.

In comments to Millard, the Register said that the public and press are afforded “broad access rights to judicial hearings and records” which extend to civil trials in the same manner that they apply to criminal proceedings. The newspaper also argued that “compelling countervailing reasons” are necessary to curtail access rights, which have not been demonstrated.

Terry Francke, executive director of the California First Amendment Coalition, said that the videotapes should be “assumed to be treated as public records just as a verbatim transcript.”

“Without demonstration of harm as a result of copying, it’s not clear to me that the court can make that type of restriction,” said Francke. “This is a prior restraint issue in the form of an access issue.”