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New York high court says camera ban constitutional

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From the Summer 2005 issue of The News Media & The Law, page 38. By Tom Sullivan Advocates for cameras…

From the Summer 2005 issue of The News Media & The Law, page 38.

By Tom Sullivan

Advocates for cameras in courtrooms brought their appeals to four states’ high courts, winning one case and losing another.

The New York Court of Appeals upheld a state law banning televising trials, while the Mississippi Supreme Court ruled that a woman seeking to get a guilty verdict overturned needed to &#151 but did not &#151 prove that cameras disrupted her trial. Rulings are expected soon from the Florida Supreme Court, considering rules to ban cameras, and Georgia’s high court, which is mulling whether to allow a small digital camera in court.

A lower court judge in Hawaii ruled that hearings must be held before any camera ban is implemented and, in New Mexico, a judge rejected a loose interpretation of the criteria required for a ban.

New York alone in barring cameras in courts

New York’s ban on cameras in courtrooms does not violate the First Amendment or the New York Constitution, the state’s highest court ruled unanimously June 16, ending a nearly four-year court battle over the issue. The decision means that New York is the only state totally barring cameras in the courtroom.

The New York Court of Appeals held that the press has no greater right of access to court proceedings than the general public under either the state or federal Constitution. While trials should be presumptively open, the government’s primary interest is in a fair trial, Judge George Bundy Smith wrote for the court.

“The governmental interests of the right of a defendant to have a fair trial and for the trial court to maintain the integrity of the courtroom outweigh any absolute First Amendment or article I, section 8 right of the press or the public to have access to trials,” Bundy wrote, referring to the section of the New York Constitution protecting freedom of the press.

The court also said it is up to the legislature &#151 not the courts &#151 to decide whether television crews will have permission to film in courtrooms. Two state lower courts had previously concluded the same, although individual judges have allowed cameras.

The television network Court TV sued to overturn the camera ban in September 2001, arguing that it interferes with the press and public rights of access to trials.

The high court disagreed, ruling that while the public may receive most of its information through the media, the press has no special rights. A ban on cameras is “not a restriction on the openness of court proceedings but rather on what means can be used in order to gather news,” Smith wrote.

Civil Rights Law &#16752 bans cameras from courtrooms and other places where compulsory testimony is taken. Previous lawsuits had sought access to particular trials or court proceedings, but this was the first time the law, created in 1952, was directly challenged.

The court noted in its ruling that the legislature examined allowing camera access in four two-to-three-year experiments beginning in 1987 in which judges could let trials be filmed at their discretion. Reports on each experiment recommended lifting the ban, but the legislature chose not to act each time and then allowed the law permitting the experiments to expire in 1997.

Court TV Chairman and CEO Henry Schleiff said he saw a “very clear cue” in the court’s decision for the legislature to act on the issue and is optimistic it will do so in its next session.

The Reporters Committee for the Freedom of the Press is one of several press organizations that joined a friend-of-the-court brief on Court TV’s behalf.

Proposed new Florida rules undefined

The Florida Supreme Court is considering new rules that would allow judges deciding if cameras should be allowed in each trial in their courtrooms to consider “privacy” and “privileged and confidential matters,” which are not defined in the proposed rules.

The court held oral arguments June 9 about the changes, which also would grant judges the authority to ban photographing jurors’ faces without a hearing and to restrict the use of court security cameras.

In written comments, CNN, as well as local television stations and newspapers, urged the court to reject the proposed revisions.

“Based upon unsupported assumptions that additional privacy protections are needed and that juror identities should be shielded from the electronic media (assertions rejected by the Court), the new rule virtually swallows the right of access and devours the judiciary’s dedication to operate in the sunshine,” the group argued.

Currently, judges may close trials to control the conduct of proceedings, ensure decorum, prevent distractions and “ensure the fair administration of justice.” The proposed changes would allow judges far too much leeway to keep cameras out, the group argued, since terms such as “privacy” are undefined.

In regard to the filming of jurors, the media argued the court had ruled on the issue only two years earlier when it upheld a lower court ruling that a judge must hold a hearing before deciding to deny the televising of jurors. Essentially, the rule would lead to “juror closure orders as a matter of course,” the media argued.

Florida Circuit Court Judge Claudia Isom, who chairs the state’s Rules of Judicial Administration Committee, filed a response to the court in which she said that protecting private and confidential information is “consistent with a common law tradition” and that, if the proposed changes were adopted, “there is no reason to believe that trial court judges would engage in the wholesale prohibition of publishing or broadcasting” jury members’ faces.

TV did not jeopardize Mississippi defendant’s fair trial rights

The placement of cameras in a courtroom and a judge’s decision to tell jurors a trial would be nationally televised did not violate a woman’s right to a fair trial, the Supreme Court of Mississippi ruled June 16.

Stephanie Stephens, who was convicted of murdering her husband, failed to present any evidence that the cameras’ locations disrupted the trial or prejudiced her case, the court ruled. The court also found that Stephens did not prove jurors would have ruled another way if they had not known that the trial was being filmed.

The case was the first in Mississippi to allow cameras in the courtroom under new rules adopted in April 2003. Cameras must be placed so they are “minimally intrusive,” jurors may not be filmed and must be informed they will not be shown on camera, and no equipment may be moved while court is in session. The presiding judge also has the discretion to limit or terminate filming. Under the previous rules, cameras were barred from courtrooms in the state.

CBS had arranged to record the trial for “48 Hours.” Though Stephens was given the opportunity to object when the judge first announced CBS’s request and could have raised an objection at any other point during the trial if she thought a rule was being violated, she did not, the high court noted.

As a result, Stephens had to prove both that the rules were violated and that this damaged her case. The court held that she failed to do either.

Georgia high court ruling expected soon in camera matter

A trial court judge did not meet the courts’ requirements for denying a reporter the right to take photographs in his courtroom, the Savannah Morning News argued before the state’s highest court in late June.

Under the state’s rules, judges banning cameras from their courtrooms must find that allowing them in would be disruptive. Morning News attorney David Hudson told the Georgia Supreme Court that Superior Court Judge Gates Peed’s stated reasons &#151 the defendant’s request, fears that jurors would be photographed and the small size of his courtroom &#151 did not meet this requirement.

The reporter who wanted to bring the camera in would not have taken pictures of jurors and the camera he planned to use was small enough not to disrupt the proceedings, Hudson said in an interview.

“There’s no courtroom that’s too small for a camera,” he said. “Any place that a person can sit, they can also hold a digital camera.”

Fears that allowing cameras would damage the defendant’s right to a fair trial were “nonsense,” Hudson said. In a 1965 case cited as a precedent, Estes v. Texas, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the presence of photographers jeopardized the fair trial rights of the defendant, but in that case photographers moved around the courtroom throughout the pretrial hearing. Here, it would just have been the one reporter sitting with a small camera, Hudson said.

The court is expected to rule soon.

Cameras cannot be barred from New Mexico preliminary hearings

In a case similar to the one in Georgia, a state district court judge ruled that cameras may not be barred from a preliminary hearing unless a judge holds a hearing on the matter and determines the cameras’ presence could damage the defendant’s right to a fair trial.

The Albuquerque Journal and two local television stations challenged Metropolitan Court Judge Charles Barnhart after he banned cameras from the arraignment of a police officer accused of raping a teenage girl without hearing arguments from the media and without giving a specific reason.

In New Mexico, preliminary hearings are held in Metropolitan Court and trials are held in District Court.

On July 6, District Court Judge Linda Vanzi upheld her previous preliminary ruling and ordered Barnhart to follow case law guidelines that allow judges to exclude cameras from their courtrooms, but only after scheduling a hearing and allowing the media to make their arguments before issuing written findings. Judges must balance the defendant’s right to a fair trial against the media’s interest in having cameras in the courtroom.

Though Vanzi only enjoined Barnhart from banning cameras without a hearing and did not rule that cameras must be allowed, the ruling sets a precedent for other Metropolitan Court judges in future cases, said Chuck Peifer, the attorney who represented the Journal.

Cameras allowed in child rape trial in Hawaii

A Honolulu district judge denied a request by the lawyer of a defendant accused of child rape to ban cameras from a pretrial hearing.

The lawyer for Yomeo Eieta had argued that it is “racist to show a Micronesian man in chains on the evening news, but they don’t show any pictures of good Micronesians doing good work,” The Honolulu Advertiser reported.

District Judge Leslie Hayashi rejected that argument. Under court rules, a judge must allow cameras into his courtroom unless “good cause” exists to prohibit them.