The Utah Judicial Council unanimously approved measures on Monday that moves video coverage of civil and criminal trial proceedings one step closer to reality. If the changes to state court procedures are adopted, Utah would be propelled from one of the most restrictive states to one of the most open and accessible, in terms of electronic coverage of state courts.
“This is a significant development in Utah,” said Jeffrey Hunt, a media lawyer and member of the council's Committee on Technology Brought into the Courtroom. “We’ve never been allowed to have electronic media coverage of trial court proceedings here.”
This move comes after a yearlong study that weighed the pros and cons of taping court proceedings. In addition to approving rule revisions permitting video coverage of all trials, the council — the state's judicial policy-making body — also approved changes allowing the possession and use of laptops, cell phones and other electronic devices by the media and general public, so long as no photographs or videos are taken on these devices.
According to the study conducted by the technology committee, "permitting electronic media coverage will allow the public to actually see and hear what transpires in the courtroom, and to become better educated and informed about the work of the courts."
Under the current judicial administration rules, video and audio recording by the media is permitted at the appellate court level, but is prohibited in civil, criminal and juvenile trial proceedings.
These proposed measures would change that, but the privilege would only be granted to members of the media who fall under the state's definition of a news reporter. As per the state's shield law, a news reporter is defined as "any person who gathers, records, photographs, reports, or publishes information for the primary purpose of disseminating information to the public."
Currently, at the judge's discretion, still photography at the trial and appellate courts is allowed, but there is no guarantee. The proposed rule would remove this presumption of closure and cameras would presumably be allowed in all state courtrooms, unless circumstances arise that would compromise a person's right to a fair trial, the privacy of witnesses and victims, the safety or well-being of an individual or the interests of a minor.
"The thing I’m excited about is the presumption," Hunt said. "What that does is it takes away from it being just at the discretion of judge, some judges don’t mind cameras and some judges really are opposed to them … so we felt as a committee it was important to have a policy position that cameras are generally allowed."
While this proposal allows for the filming of trials, it limits the number of cameras in the courtroom. Courts will only permit one still photographer and one videographer, meaning media organizations will have to pool coverage. All media will be required to submit a written request at least 24 hours in advance of a trial's start in order to photograph or film in the courtroom. This recommended rule also grants a judge the authority to suspend electronic coverage at any time during the proceedings, but holds that if coverage is terminated, judges will be required to issue a written or oral reasoning on the record.
The proposal now goes before the Policy and Planning Committee before it is returned to the judicial council for approval and released for a 30 to 60 day public comment and review period. This process could begin as early as this month, said Nancy Volmer, the public information officer for Utah State Courts.
Related Reporters Committee resources:
· Utah – Open Courts Compendium: A. The First Amendment presumption of access
· Utah – Open Courts Compendium: XI. Cameras and other technology in the courtroom