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Senator pushes for cameras in high court

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Iowa hearing deciding on camera ban closed to media; Illinois high court maintains camera ban; Georgia Supreme Court overturns ban…

Iowa hearing deciding on camera ban closed to media; Illinois high court maintains camera ban; Georgia Supreme Court overturns ban in murder trial.

From the Fall 2005 issue of The News Media & The Law, page 30.

By Kaitlin Thaney

Television cameras could venture into now forbidden territory &#151 the nation’s highest court &#151 if a bill introduced by the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee passes. The legislation, introduced in September, calls for U.S. Supreme Court sessions to be televised, though at least two justices oppose the idea.

An Iowa judge decided in a September hearing closed to journalists that a felony HIV-transmission trial will be shuttered to cameras. The Illinois Supreme Court, without comment, denied a request to change its rules on allowing cameras in the high court, maintaining a 25-year ban. An Idaho judge barred cameras and other recording devices from the hearing of an accused murderer in late August. And in Georgia, the state’s highest court reversed a camera ban, though the ruling comes too late to help the media.

Legislation calls for televising U.S. Supreme Court proceedings

U.S. Supreme Court proceedings could be televised under a bill introduced in late September by Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee. During nomination hearings for Chief Justice John Roberts, the nominee said he had not decided whether cameras should be allowed in the courtroom, prompting Specter to introduce the bill.

“Because the Supreme Court of the United States holds power to decide cutting-edge questions on public policy, thereby effectively becoming a virtual ‘super legislature,’ the public has a right to know what the Supreme Court is doing,” Specter said in comments published in the Congressional Record Sept. 26. “And that right would be substantially enhanced by televising the oral arguments of the Court so that the public can see and hear the issues presented to the Court.”

Specter stressed the importance of allowing the public to understand the impact the Supreme Court has, citing historic cases such as the Dred Scott decision, the Pentagon Papers case and more recent rulings regarding eminent domain and the detention of alleged enemy combatants.

“Given the enormous significance of each vote cast by each Justice on the Supreme Court, televising the proceedings of the Supreme Court will allow sunlight to shine brightly on these proceedings and ensure greater public awareness and scrutiny,” Specter said in his statement.

Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), a co-sponsor, agreed that openness of governmental workings is crucial during “the current administration’s dramatic shift toward excessive secrecy.

“This legislation springs from one of our most essential principles,” Grassley said in addressing the Senate. “A democracy works best when the people have all the information the security of the Nation permits.”

Specter’s bill has at least two opponents on the high court. Justice Antonin Scalia opposes the bill, he said in a rare interview on NBC’s “Today” show Oct. 10. “We don’t want to become entertainment,” he said. “I think there’s something sick about making entertainment out of real people’s legal problems. I don’t like it in the lower courts, and I don’t particularly like it in the Supreme Court.”

Joining Scalia is Justice David Souter, who in 1996 said: “I can tell you the day you see a camera come into our courtroom, it’s going to roll over my dead body.”

Specter’s bill would deny access to broadcast media with cameras only if the majority of justices in a particular case decided cameras would violate due process.

Other co-sponsors of the bill are Sens. George Allen (R-Va.), John Cornyn (R-Texas), Russell Feingold (D-Wis.) Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) and Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.).

Schumer and Grassley proposed similar legislation in the past that would have permitted federal trials to be televised. Cameras currently can be barred from all federal courtrooms.

Hearing in HIV-exposure case closed to press

An Estherville, Iowa, judge decided that cameras would not be permitted at the trial of a Milford, Iowa, man accused of exposing four women to HIV. Judge David Lester barred reporters from the court hearing in which he ruled on the camera ban and also ordered a media representative who attended the proceedings not to disclose the details of the testimony.

The access issues arose after news organizations, including The Des Moines Register and the Iowa Freedom of Information Council, had their requests to shoot video and take photographs denied at the trial of Dwayne Boyd.

Boyd, 31, was charged in August with four counts of felony HIV transmission, each count carrying a 25-year prison sentence, the Register reported. One of the four alleged victims is his wife.

Dickinson County Attorney Rosalie Olson said cameras would be disruptive for the women expected to testify against Boyd.

The high court in Iowa allowed cameras and recording devices in courtrooms during a two-year experiment that ended in 1982, denying access only when there were objections from either side, according to the Drake University journalism school in Des Moines.

Kathleen Richardson of the Iowa Freedom of Information Council said the rules don’t allow photos of witnesses in sexual abuse cases. She said that the Boyd case is different since it is not an explicit sex abuse case, but includes intimate contact.

High court maintains ban on cameras in Illinois trials

Journalists covering Illinois courts will have to continue reporting the old-fashioned way: with pen and paper. For the second time in eight years, the Illinois Supreme Court rejected a bid to allow cameras and microphones in trial courtrooms, blocking the media’s request without comment.

The court declined to consider a petition from a number of news outlets to allow recording devices into court rooms. In Illinois, cameras and microphones are not allowed in trial courts, but reporters are permitted to record oral arguments at all appellate courts.

Earlier this summer, a group of media organizations joined forces in a renewed effort to modify the 25-year-old rule barring taping in certain courtrooms. The group included the Illinois News Broadcasters Association, the Illinois Press Association and the Illinois Broadcasters Association.

The state Supreme Court last rejected such a request in 1997.

Timing was key in resubmitting a petition to the courts to change the longstanding ban, said Springfield, Ill., attorney Donald Craven, the news broadcaster group’s general counsel.

“There have been a series of retirements in the court so a lot of new members are on the court,” he said. “This whole group had never been asked.”

The request was denied Sept. 14 without comment, leaving Craven and the news organizations in the dark as to the court’s reasoning. Their only insight into the rejected bid came from an Associated Press interview with Chief Justice Robert R. Thomas.

Thomas said the justices were concerned that coverage would affect juror and public opinion, and that there was not enough support to allow the taping.

“There was no sentiment for change,” Thomas told the AP.

Camera ban reversed in Georgia murder trial

A trial court ruling barring a Savannah Morning News reporter from taking a still camera into a murder trial was overturned by Georgia’s Supreme Court Oct. 11, eight months too late to help the paper since DeAnthony Griffin was sentenced to life in prison in February.

The decision reversed a ruling by Effingham County Superior Court Judge F. Gates Peed, who had restricted the Morning News from bringing a still camera into the courtroom.

Peed issued the ban because Griffin objected and because a camera in the court would not “increase public access to the court,” he said. Peed also said that a camera in the courtroom would invade jurors’ privacy and that a camera in a small courtroom would be obtrusive and “detract from the ends of justice.”

The state’s high court disagreed, ruling that there was not enough evidence in the record to support a camera ban. A defendant who objects to cameras on due process grounds “must set forth an adequate ground for denying a request for electronic and photographic coverage and that the record must contain some factual basis for supporting that ground,” Chief Justice Leah Ward Sears wrote for the court.

The court also found that the jury privacy concerns were unfounded because the reporter had agreed not to photograph the jury and no jurors had objected to cameras. The court also rejected Peed’s claim about the openness of proceedings.

“A camera generally will increase the openness of a judicial proceeding, and there is nothing in the record in this case to indicate that the newspaper’s camera would not have done so,” Sears wrote.

Cameras not allowed in Idaho courtroom during hearing

Cameras, cell phones, audio recorders and laptop computers were barred from an August hearing for convicted sex offender Joseph E. Duncan III, accused of murdering three members of an Idaho family with an intent to kidnap and molest two children.

Idaho’s First District Judge Fred Gibler also denied a request from Court TV to use a BlackBerry, a wireless e-mail device, that would allow a reporter at the proceedings to communicate with co-workers outside the courtroom.

Gibler had sole power to decide whether electronic recording equipment would be allowed in the Kootenai County Courthouse for the hearing. The Idaho Supreme Court had ruled earlier that the trial judge controlled the decision which is not subject to appeal.

Gibler’s ruling does not necessarily ban cameras and recording devices during Duncan’s trial, set to begin early next year, The Associated Press reported.

Duncan, 42, of Fargo, N.D., could face the death penalty on three counts of first-degree kidnapping and three counts of first-degree murder.