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City council relocates to federal court, blocks cameras

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From the Winter 2001 issue of The News Media & The Law, page 27.

From the Winter 2001 issue of The News Media & The Law, page 27.

Although the U.S. Supreme Court is holding fast to its ban on cameras in the courtroom, as recently demonstrated during the contested presidential election, states such as North Carolina are considering opening up their high courts to live coverage. Camera access on the federal level may be gaining some ground as federal officials consider a precedent-setting closed-circuit telecast of the first federal execution since 1963.

Advocates of camera access are not having an easy time everywhere. A judge has denied camera access in a high profile murder trial in California, and as the Minneapolis City Council temporarily moves its meetings into a federal courthouse, broadcasters find themselves unable to bring any cameras to the meetings.

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N.C. chief justice pushes plan for cameras in appeals courts

Following the televised coverage of the Florida Supreme Court arguments in the contested presidential election, North Carolina officials said they are thinking long and hard about televising high court hearings.

During his election campaign, newly sworn-in state Supreme Court Chief Justice I. Beverly Lake Jr. said he is interested in improving the public’s understanding of the court.

“The courts are open to the public,” Lake said. “I think it’s very good for people to see what’s happening. In this day and time, the public can’t stand outside the courthouse and listen through open windows.”

Lake is considering a permanent television system that would include using several cameras hidden in the walls and existing microphones.

The plan has not been put into effect yet due to concerns about court funding, Chief Judge Sidney S. Eagles Jr. of the Court of Appeals told The (Raleigh) News and Observer. Both appellate courts are in need of physical renovation and the acoustics in the courtrooms need improvement.

On occasion, cameras have been allowed in the state Supreme Court and Court of Appeals, but are not permitted as often as in some other states. Since 1982, single cameras have been allowed in the courts with some rules about what may be broadcast. Also, the presiding judge has the discretion to bar cameras.

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New venue, new rules

Reporting from Minneapolis City Council meetings will have to be done without cameras or recording devices while the city council temporarily holds its meetings in the federal courthouse.

The council moved its meetings across the street Jan. 19 while its chamber and committee rooms at city hall undergo renovations. According to a Federal Judicial Conference rule, no cameras or recording devices are allowed in any federal courthouse. As a result, both print and broadcast media that routinely use tape recorders, photography and video cameras to cover the event must go without.

The only camera allowed at the meetings will be from the city’s Office of Video Services, which routinely tapes and broadcasts the meetings live on municipal cable channels. A two hour tape-delayed broadcast of the meetings will be aired, at which time the media can obtain copies of the videotapes.

The Minnesota Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists, in a resolution adopted Jan. 9, said the arrangement violates the public’s right to know how public business is conducted and urged the council to find a different meeting place.

The courthouse was chosen because the space is free and scheduling conflicts arose at other locations. Renovations at city hall are expected to take six months.

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Cameras banned from California murder trial

A California judge ruled against permitting cameras into a courtroom to cover the murder trial of Josefina Sonia Saldana. However, news organizations will be allowed to use audio equipment to record the proceedings.

Fresno County Superior Court Judge Gary Austin said on Jan. 9 that he decided to exclude cameras after balancing the reasons for an open trial and the need to maintain the dignity of the courtroom. Austin will allow each witnesses to decide if they want their voice recorded.

Prosecutor Blake Gunderson favored the decision.

“I don’t think cameras have a place in California courtrooms,” he said adding that they were a distraction and destroyed the dignity of the proceedings.

After opposing a plan by the governor in 1996 to ban cameras from all courtrooms, the state Judicial Council decided to grant presiding judges the authority to permit, refuse or limit camera coverage in the courtroom. When deciding the question of camera access, the council provided judges with a list of factors to consider, which include: importance of maintaining public trust in the judicial system, the consent of the parties, nature of the case, privacy rights of the participants and the dignity of the court.

Attorneys for Saldana, who is accused of dismembering a woman in order to steal her fetus in September 1998, do not oppose cameras at the trial. (California v. Saldana)

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Closed-circuit telecast of Oklahoma execution possible

In an attempt to accommodate the numerous requests from victims and their relatives to witness the execution of Timothy McVeigh, federal prison officials are considering a closed-circuit telecast of his execution, according to the Associated Press.

“We’re currently planning right now in regard to how we can accommodate the needs of the victims,” Bureau of Prisons spokesman Dan Dunne said.

McVeigh is scheduled to die by lethal injection May 16. He was convicted for the 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, which killed 168 people.

To fill the eight seats reserved for victims, the government sent letters to 1,100 people asking if they wanted to attend. They have until Feb. 5 to reply.

Some survivors of the attack have asked Karen Howick, an Oklahoma City attorney, to go to court if necessary to get permission for the closed-circuit telecast of the execution. No law or precedent forbids closed-circuit telecasting of executions.

While the majority of the public did not have the opportunity to witness the trial, victims and relatives did. In 1996, Howick successfully fought for the closed-circuit telecast of McVeigh’s Denver trial into an Oklahoma City courtroom.

On April 24, 1996, spurred by intense lobbying from Oklahoma City bombing victims, Congress passed legislation allowing for closed-circuit broadcasts of trials that are moved out of the state or relocated 350 miles from the original trial location. –EH