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High court overturns courtroom camera prohibition

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    News Media Update         MISSISSIPPI         Broadcasting         Jan. 28, 2005    

High court overturns courtroom camera prohibition

  • The Mississippi Supreme Court has overruled a trial judge’s camera prohibition one month after permanently adopting what had been experimental court rules allowing courtroom television coverage.

Jan. 28, 2005 — Cameras cannot be barred from Mississippi courtrooms unless the prohibition is narrowly tailored to show that a defendant would not receive a fair trial, the state Supreme Court ruled earlier this month. The decision coincides with new rules for media coverage of judicial proceedings that the court permanently adopted in December.

The Mississippi judiciary was in the middle of an 18-month experiment permitting cameras in the majority of state courtrooms last year when a state trial court forbade the presence of television cameras during the sentencing of a man who conspired to defraud an elderly woman of real estate.

A camera’s presence during sentencing could adversely affect the fairness of the subsequent trial of an alleged co-conspirator, Circuit Judge Marcus Gordon held. The affected television station appealed to the Mississippi Supreme Court. Because of the issue’s time-sensitivity, the high court released a preliminary November order granting access to the station’s cameras.

The court elaborated its reasoning in a divided 5-3 opinion released Jan. 20. Cameras cannot be barred from Mississippi courtrooms unless a judge articulates a “substantial probability” that television coverage would deprive a defendant of a fair trial, Justice William L. Waller, Jr. wrote for the majority, adding that the circuit judge’s order had not satisfied that burden. “The learned circuit judge, while expressing concern that things covered in the sentencing hearing ‘may’ impact the companion case . . . stated no specific prejudice.”

In a sharp dissent, Justice Kay Cobb objected to second-guessing the circuit judge’s exercise of discretion, saying that the impact of television coverage on the fair trial right of the alleged co-conspirator “is impossible to know.” Another dissenting jurist, Justice Chuck Easley, seconded her view that trial judges are the best arbiters of cameras’ impact on a trial.

The decision was the second action taken by the Mississippi Supreme Court in recent months to expand camera access in state courts. In December, the court permanently adopted the rules governing “Electronic and Photographic Coverage of Judicial Proceedings.” Prior to the high court’s acceptance of the rules, they were considered experimental and would have expired.

The court also expanded the rules’ scope. The original rules allowed one “pool” camera to feed coverage to other media; the amended version allows for any number of cameras so long as they do not distract court proceedings. The new rules apply to the high court, the Court of Appeals and chancery, circuit and county courts. Cameras will still not allowed in justice courts and municipal courts.

(Re: WLBT, Inc.; Media Counsel: Leonard D. Van Slyke, Jr.; Jackson, Mississippi)RL

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