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Update: cameras in the courtroom

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  1. Court Access
AP Photo/St. Cloud Times by Jason Wachter A judge listens to arguments in a civil case in St. Cloud, Minn.…

AP Photo/St. Cloud Times by Jason Wachter

A judge listens to arguments in a civil case in St. Cloud, Minn. Photojournalist David Chaney of WCCO films the proceedings, which is the first time cameras have been allowed in a Stearns County courtroom for a civil case.

Cameras are rolling in an increasing number of American courthouses, as two states have added new transparency measures.

Federal courts, from the top down, are most resistant to changes, though, and Justice Sonia Sotomayor even publicly backed off her earlier stance on allowing cameras in the nation’s high court.

At the state level, Illinois and Utah have opened their courts, beginning programs to bring camera coverage to trials.

“Allowance for cameras in all courtrooms is something that the Illinois Press Association has been seeking for many years,” Dennis DeRossett, the association’s executive director, said in a statement. “Illinois already allows cameras at the Appellate and Supreme Court level. So, it only makes sense that trial courts be included.”

The Illinois plan began in January 2012, when the state Supreme Court allowed individual circuit courts to apply to the high court and request camera access.

Since then, 29 counties in 12 circuits have been approved by the high court, court spokesman Joseph Tybor said. There are 102 counties in 23 districts in the state.

The first Chicago-area murder trial to be captured on camera concluded May 14, when a jury convicted Johnny Borizov of murder and of masterminding the shooting deaths of three people.

Cameras recorded the bulk of the trial, which took four weeks in DuPage County Court. Broadcasting was put on hold for the testimony of several witnesses.

Media representatives requested two video cameras and two still cameras in the courtroom, but Judge Daniel Guerin allowed only one of each.

Other circuits are still waiting for approval from the state supreme court, including Cook County, the largest in Illinois with more than five million residents, which applied for camera usage last year.

The first high-profile trial to be broadcast under the Illinois plan was the trial of Nicholas Sheley, who was convicted of murder in the death of an elderly man. The trial took place in Illinois’14th Circuit, in the northwest part of the state.

In April, Utah became the 20th state to allow television cameras in trial courtrooms. The Utah Judicial Council approved the measures, which permit one camera in a courtroom, and the feed to be shared by requesting media groups.

Utah’s rules apply to civil and criminal cases and also allow electronic devices, like smartphones and tablets, in the courtroom, although they may not be used to take photographs.

“We were in the bottom third of states allowing access to the courts, and as of today we are in the upper tier,” said state court spokeswoman Nancy Volmer when the rules took effect.

Utah’s rules allow a judge to order the camera off when certain testimony is given, such as that from a child or sexual abuse victim.

“Video recordings can help tell the story in more direct fashion,” said an editorial from the Salt Lake City Deseret News. “Justice may be blind, but the process in which it is delivered is something the general public should be able to see.”

Volmer said that several trial courts had already begun the process of allowing cameras.

While the boundaries of cameras in state courtrooms are typically defined by rules written by an individual state’s highest court, a Virginia court case instead has the potential to determine how trial courts may handle cameras within the state.

A Charlottesville-based trial judge banned television stations from recording the trial of George Huguely V, who was eventually convicted of murdering his ex-girlfriend at the University of Virginia.

The broadcasters appealed the decision, arguing that Circuit Judge Edward L. Hogshire failed to consider the media’s right of access to court proceedings, and it has made its way to the state’s highest court.

The court granted the appeal in April and will consider the case in its June session. The ruling could ultimately determine what kind of reasoning a trial court must use before closing a courtroom to cameras.

Supreme Court opposition

The notion of cameras in the U.S. Supreme Court has been approached differently. With the justices generally opposed to cameras, it seems unlikely that live video feeds from the country’s highest court will be broadcast anytime soon.

Former Justice David Souter famously opined in 1996 that “the day you see a camera come into our courtroom, it’s going to roll over my dead body.”

And that sentiment is shared by the current bench. “You think it won’t affect you, your questioning,” Justice Stephen Breyer told a House hearing in April, adding that the justices might “watch a lot more carefully what [they] say” once live portrayals make their way into mainstream coverage.

Justice Anthony Kennedy told the same panel that cameras in the courtroom would create an “insidious dynamic.”

Justice Sonia Sotomayor has turned away from openness, too. After a spirited endorsement of cameras during her confirmation hearing, she went on Charlie Rose’s show in February and stated she had rethought the matter.

“I don’t think most viewers take the time to actually delve into either the briefs or the legal arguments to appreciate what the court is doing,” she said. “They speculate about, oh, the judge favors this point rather than that point. Very few of them understand what the process is, which is to play devil’s advocate.”

Elsewhere, the federal judiciary’s pilot program for cameras in courtrooms continues. The three-year program started in July 2011, encompassing 14 district courts in different states.

Analysis of and lessons from the pilot program could guide the Judicial Conference in its willingness to open more courtrooms.

Another option is Congress, but legislation to open federal courts has repeatedly stalled out in the legislative branch.

Sen. Chuck Grassley and Rep. Steve King, both Iowa Republicans, have introduced a bill in Congress that would give federal judges the option to open courtrooms to cameras and recording devices.

The House version of the bill was introduced in February and referred to a subcommittee on courts, intellectual property, and the Internet. The Senate version has seen no action since its introduction.

Grassley has repeatedly introduced the bill, going back to 1999, but it has never made it to the Senate floor. The furthest along it went was in 2009, when a version passed the Senate Judiciary Committee.

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