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Photographers enjoy improved court access

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From the Fall 2001 issue of The News Media & The Law, page 40.

From the Fall 2001 issue of The News Media & The Law, page 40.

Despite a few isolated incidents, court photographers experienced mostly favorable conditions during the past few months. Contempt hearings were held in California for two reporters who took pictures in county courthouses without permission and a district judge in Jasper County, Iowa, threw out a roomful of photographers he claimed filed for admission to court hearings too late. But substantial steps were taken to increase television broadcast and photographic reporting of court hearings nationally.

In New York, Court TV filed a lawsuit to challenge the state’s 50-year-old ban on cameras. Television footage and still photographs of the widely-publicized murder trial for Michael Skakel was permitted for the first time. And following the admittance in August of cameras into South Dakota’s Supreme Court for the first time last summer, court photographers were present in October again to document the state’s high court.

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Court TV challenges 50-year-old ban on photography in New York courts

Television viewers last year witnessed the trial of four New York City police officers accused in the shooting death of Amadou Diallo, the first time in nearly four years judges allowed cameras into a New York trial court after a 10-year experiment expired.

But in May, a state appellate court in New York City ruled decisively against courtroom cameras during Jose Santiago’s murder trial, overruling lower courts that were, as a result of the Diallo case, allowing some picture taking to occur in New York courts.

The appellate court ruled that reporters had no clear First Amendment right to photograph Santiago’s trial, but it also provided clear advice about how to properly challenge the constitutionality of New York’s ban.

A national cable channel is now following this lead, and the future of television and still photography in New York courts is up in the air.

Court TV filed a lawsuit on Sept. 6 in the New York Supreme Court, Manhattan, seeking declaratory judgment to determine whether a 1952 ban on courtroom photography violates state and federal constitutions. Section 52 of New York Civil Rights Law specifically prohibits “the televising, broadcasting, or taking motion pictures within this state of proceedings, in which the testimony of witnesses by subpoena or other compulsory processes is or may be taken.”

“Banning the televising of every single trial in this state cannot stand in an age where citizens’ knowledge of the functioning of their government has been vastly expanded by, and become dependent upon, television and the Internet,” Court TV attorneys wrote in legal briefs filed with the state Supreme Court. “It cannot stand in the face of the many studies that offer no evidence to justify a total ban.”

Critics say the New York law is a relic from past decades, lingering from days when video technology was far more obtrusive and disruptive to the judicial process than it is today.

“The statute was enacted in a day and age when the technology of television was very crude, so that it disturbed court proceedings,” said Jonathan Scherman, an attorney for Court TV. “There ought to be a quiet dignity to trials so that the truth-seeking process can be conducted.”

And it can be with today’s equipment, Scherman said, noting that the cameras used by broadcasters today are small and function without external lights, exposed wires or imposing technicians that accompanied them before.

As a result of the Sept. 11 tragedy in New York City, the case is moving slower than expected, Scherman said. The state has yet to reply to the initial filing of the cable network’s lawsuit.

When cameras were allowed into the courtroom during the widely publicized Diallo trial last year, it was not the first time journalists in New York were allowed to disseminate images from intimate trial proceedings onto television screens and newspaper pages.

From 1987 to 1997, such trial coverage was legalized in experimental legislation approved by legislators in Albany. Trial judges could impose restrictions to limit photography in specific instances, but television, radio and still photography allowed glimpses into many controversial trials during those years.

The doors closed to cameras again in 1997, when state lawmakers allowed the 10-year suspension of Section 52 to expire, providing no further legislation to clarify laws surrounding court photography.

Defense attorneys from the Albany Capital Defenders Office, who successfully argued to bar cameras from Santiago’s murder trial last spring, declined to comment on the recent Court TV lawsuit. In court documents filed last May, however, they argued that the bulkiness of cameras is not the only justification for excluding them from court proceedings.

They wrote that the New York General Assembly enacted Section 52 because it found that the presence of cameras impairs witness testimony, further undermining the accuracy of the truth-finding process and creating a public spectacle.

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Supreme Court in South Dakota opens its doors to cameras

For the second time in its history, the South Dakota Supreme Court allowed court photographers to document oral arguments when it convened in early October at South Dakota State University in Brookings.

An audience of about 600 gathered at the university to witness oral arguments before the court, said Mark Millage, news director for KELO/Channel 11. The court usually convenes for several days every month and occasionally holds sessions in other cities during the year. The session marked the second time the justices allowed cameras to film court proceedings.

South Dakota became the 50th state to open its courtrooms to cameras. The justices introduced cameras into the court chambers for the first time for oral arguments on Aug. 29.

“The main purpose for the court to allow cameras in was to educate students and the general public in understanding how the courts work,” Millage said.

Two television and two still cameras captured the court proceeding, which was then gathered for pool reporters to use, Millage said. Newspapers and television stations from around the state used the footage and pictures, he said.

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Photographers in Iowa thrown out of court for a day

News photographers in Iowa were surprised by a Jasper County judge who unexpectedly threw them out of court on Aug. 14 for failing to file a routine camera request on time.

Judge Thomas Mott waited until he took the bench before denying news photographers their request to participate in the arraignment hearing of a West Des Moines man accused in the hit-and-run death of a bicyclist, said Geoff Greenwood, regional coordinator for expanded media coverage of the courts in central Iowa.

The Iowa Supreme Court lifted its ban on cameras in state courtrooms more than 21 years ago, devising a system for reporters who want to take photographs of courtroom proceedings.

Camera crews and photographers are supposed to file their requests two weeks in advance of trial hearings, Greenwood said, but sometimes suspects’ initial appearances in court are scheduled less than a day in advance. In these instances, reporters are expected to file “as soon as practicable,” he said.

The hearing in Jasper County was such a case, making it difficult to petition the courts before the courthouse opened at 8 a.m. Photographers took their places in the courtroom 15 minutes before the hearing began but were ordered to leave when Mott entered the room.

After the hearing, Mott told reporters they were taking for granted the typical action of the court, which was to approve the requests.

“Reporters filed on the morning of the hearing, as they do in many cases, but the judge felt the request was not timely,” Greenwood said. “We routinely file these requests at the time of the initial appearances, without a problem, but it’s the judge’s call.”

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Reporters in California narrowly escape contempt

A California superior court judge cleared up rules governing media access to state courts in September by dropping contempt charges against two photographers who shot pictures in courthouses without permission.

A newspaper photographer who took pictures of a juvenile in a courthouse hallway and a television producer who filmed in a file office were both exonerated by a judge in Alameda County who addressed the obscurity of state laws regulating photography around the courthouse.

The California Rules for Court do not prevent journalists from taking photos in a juvenile court hallway or filming in a courthouse office room, Judge Richard Hodge ruled from the bench in two separate hearings on Sept.13. But he added that the regulations may be changed.

“Under the existing orders, rules and statutes, there is no restriction on photography in the hallway that would make it possible to order a contempt charge,” said John Carne, attorney for Sean Connelley, an Oakland Tribune photographer charged with contempt.

Hodge made it very clear, however, that a constitutional order could be drafted to restrict future courthouse photography, Carne said.Two contempt hearings arose from the murkiness of California’s Rule 980. According to the rule, photographers need written permission from a judge to shoot pictures and video footage inside a courtroom. The statute does not address other areas in and around the courthouse, and, as a result, courthouses around the San Francisco Bay Area have developed different standards for photography.

“For decades, the news media have gone into these courthouses and taped in and around them,” said Roland DeWolk, the KTVU/Channel 2 producer who was threatened by police and a judge for filming from an office in an Oakland courthouse.

“Police, judges and district attorneys cannot treat these public facilities as if they are their private domain.” (People v. DeWolk; Re: Donna Horowitz, Sean Connelley, and ANG Newspapers)

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Cameras allowed to capture appeals hearing in Skakel trial

Even though the crime for which Michael Skakel is now accused occurred more than 25 years ago, the media has not lost interest in his case. Reporters typically flock to superior court in Stamford, Conn., to cover updates in Skakel’s highly publicized prosecution.

When the case went to superior court in late September, however, it was the first time court photographers were allowed to take pictures during the ongoing case.

Skakel, now 41, went to superior court as part of an appeal to determine if his case will be prosecuted in juvenile or adult courts. Skakel is the nephew of Ethel Kennedy. He is charged with murdering his 15-year-old Greenwich neighbor Martha Moxley in 1975, when he was also 15.

Despite the fact that proceedings in the lower courts are closed to camera crews, the Connecticut Network was allowed to film the appeals hearings and feed its footage to other networks.

The presence of cameras affects the performance of all parties when hearings are televised, said Skakel’s defense attorney Mickey Sherman.

“It keeps everyone on their toes, it keeps everyone honest, it allows the public more understanding, and it will not affect the case,” he said. — GR