Gavel Grab

Archive for the ‘Courtroom Cameras’ Category

MA High Court Rules in Favor of ‘OpenCourt’ Project

The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruled in favor of project OpenCourt’s ability to record, stream online, and archive public court proceedings, reports the Nieman Journalism Lab. The high court declared that restricting the project’s rights to publish was a violation of First Amendment press protections.

In its decision, the court said that those opposed to OpenCourt failed to show a compelling justification for government censorship of the online material, according to the Boston Globe.

This decision came during Sunshine Week, a national initiative meant to promote a dialogue on the importance of open government and freedom of information. OpenCourt was conceived as a way to make local Massachusetts courts more accessible to the public through technology.

OpenCourt placed cameras in courtrooms that could live-stream footage online in 2011, but by last summer, a local district attorney had filed motions to shut off livestream videos and keep the project from publishing them online, the article says.

According to the Nieman article, a judge denied the motion to remove the livestream, but did not comment on the archived records. However, as other state actors became involved, OpenCourt fought to keep its online resources.

“When there are less and less reporters out there to be the bridge to what’s going on in the nation’s courts, there needs to be a way for the public to be informed about how justice is administered in this country,” said John Davidow, the project’s executive director. “We felt that it was really an important right for us to fight for in the courts,” he said.

The Supreme Court’s decision can be found here.

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Supreme Court Cameras Bill won’t Pass Before Healthcare Case

The upcoming Supreme Court case over challenges to the healthcare reform law has increased interest in legislation allowing cameras into the court room. While the bill on cameras has bipartisan support in Congress, it will not pass before oral arguments are heard in March, according to an article in The Hill.

The legislation was approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee this month (see Gavel Grab), but is still awaiting a floor vote. Proponents of the bill have tied it to public interest in the healthcare debate.

Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy said the bill would “deepen Americans’ understanding” of the Supreme Court. There is a high level of interest in the case given its magnitude. Representative Gerry Connolly has called oral arguments on the healthcare reform a “seismic event.”

According to the article, C-SPAN founder and CEO Brian Lamb wrote a letter to Chief Justice John Roberts last fall asking for cameras to be allowed in the courtroom. Roberts has not yet responded to the request.

Critics of cameras are worried that publicizing courtroom proceedings might turn them into a “circus.” Tom Fitton, president of the conservative special interest group Judicial Watch has said that “the last thing we need in the Supreme Court is justices and lawyers mugging for the cameras. It’s already too political as it is.”

Other groups see cameras as a positive feature. They say that the court’s decision will affect everyone, and everyone has a right to hear the arguments. Courtroom cameras are becoming more commonplace around the country, and are even allowed in the Second and Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals (see Gavel Grab).

The justices are also split over the issue. The newest member of the court, Elena Kagan, has called it a “terrific” idea. Justice Sonia Sotomayor has also expressed her support for televising oral arguments, as has Justice Samuel Alito. Roberts has not expressed a view on one side or the other, and has been hesitant to answer questions regarding cameras. The objecting justices have expressed their opinions the most strongly out of the nine.

Although it’s becoming unlikely that cameras will be allowed in the courtroom in March, Congress may make a decision on the bill in the coming months.


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Report: Cameramen Seen as ‘Commonplace’ in Wisconsin Court

As Illinois tries out a pilot project for cameras in the courtroom, the successful experiences of two neighboring states may be enlightening, a Chicago Tribune article suggests.

Reporter Ted Gregory wrote that at a recent sentencing hearing in Wisconsin, where cameras have been allowed in the courtroom for a generation, witnesses testifying on behalf of both the defendant and the victim voiced comfort with the TV cameras.

“The two photographers covering the … sentencing from the jury box were viewed as being as commonplace as the chairs they occupied,” he wrote in the article, which was headlined, “Few camera problems in Wisconsin courts: As Illinois begins pilot program, neighbors to the north give positive report.”

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Senate Panel Endorses Cameras in Supreme Court

The Senate Judiciary Committee voted 11-7 in favor of bill that would permit the televising of Supreme Court proceedings.  The bill states that the Supreme Court “shall permit television coverage of all open sessions of the Court unless the Court decides, by a vote of the majority of justices, that allowing such coverage in a particular case would constitute a violation of the due process rights of 1 or more of the parties before the Court.”

Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) started the meeting by stating that the bill was designed for better transparency for the American people:

“We have the power to use technology to allow greater access to public proceedings of the Government so that all Americans can witness the quality of justice in this country.”

Leahy argued that technology would deepen public understanding of the Court, and televising the proceedings would grant “access to the government for the people.” He also mentioned that Congress has been televised for 25 years, and most state courts have welcomed the use of cameras.

Other senators described how only 250 people at any time may sit in on Supreme Court oral arguments. They said the vast majority of Americans cannot travel to Washington to see court proceedings. Among opponents, Senator Dianne Feinstein (D.-Calif.) voiced concern that the justices and attorneys might “perform” in front of TV cameras. She stated that the Senate should respect the Supreme Court as a separate branch of government, and not tell it what to do.

With the Senate committee’s approval, both houses of Congress are slated to vote on the bill, according to

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Appeals Court: No Public Release of Prop 8 Trial Video

 A federal appeals court ruled Thursday against public release of video from the historic 12-day trial in San Francisco over the constitutionality of California’s ban on same-sex marriage, called Proposition 8. The 2010 trial led to a judge’s overturning the ban.

The Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals handed a defeat to media organizations and advocates of same-sex marriage, saying the trial judge had offered assurances the video would remain sealed.

Thursday’s ruling emphasized that it was addressing the facts of the California case and not broader issues of public access to court proceedings, according to a San Jose Mercury News article.

In an opinion by Judge Stephen Reinhardt, the court said Proposition 8 backers were “entitled to take [U.S. District Court] Chief Judge Walker at his word when he assured them that the trial recording would not be publicly broadcast or televised.”

In addition, the court said Judge Vaughn Walker, who subsequently has retired, was not entitled to keep a copy of the video recordings, a Los Angeles Times article said.

To learn more about the case, see Gavel Grab.

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Poll: Most Americans For Cameras in Supreme Court

According to a USA Today/Gallup poll, 72 percent of Americans believe that cameras should be allowed in U.S. Supreme Court oral arguments, reports Politico. In fact, 77 percent of Republicans, 70 percent of Democrats, 73 percent of Independents, and at least two thirds of all other polled demographics support cameras in the Court.

The rare bipartisan support on the issue triggered recent legislation by Sens. Richard Durbin and Charles Grassley, seeking to “force the Supreme Court to allow its public proceeds to be televised, streamed to the Internet and video taped,” according to a Stockton (Calif.) Record editorial. The quandary with this bill is that, upon passage, it pins the legislative and judiciary branches against one another if the Supreme Court chooses to ignore the ruling of Congress, continues the editorial.

The Record editorial adds that proponents of the cameras cite how many courts across the country allow recordings of their proceedings, including the Second and Ninth U.S. Circuit Courts of Appeals. Those hesitant about cameras in the Court fear that “attorneys will showboat, [that] the issues are too complex, [that] video will be edited by those with nefarious intent, and [that] judges won’t ask probing questions for fear of being judged as biased.”

In the New York Times, readers debated the impact of cameras in the Supreme Court in the “Sunday Dialogue” feature. For more information about cameras in the courts, see Gavel Grab.

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Middle Ground Urged on TV Cameras at Supreme Court

There might be a middle way to move the Supreme Court toward allowing TV cameras in its courtroom, a witness told a Senate panel holding a hearing on the topic.

Tom Goldstein, the publisher of SCOTUSblog and a lawyer who has argued before the court, was suggesting a route that would thread a compromise between those who advocate Supreme Court transparency and those who say action by Congress could trample on the court’s autonomy.

“One compelling thing that [Congress] could do is to pass a unanimous resolution urging the court to do it, to give them a sense of what the senators pointed to as the great public interest in televised proceedings,” he said, according to a US News & World Report article. “But with no promises, ultimately, that the legislation would be upheld.”

Televising hearings before the high court isn’t a new idea, but it’s gotten a burst of attention since the court agreed to take up a challenge to the new federal health care law — and C-SPAN asked to televise the five and a half hour proceeding. The Senate hearing was held on a bill filed this week to require the court to allow televised proceedings (see Gavel Grab). Read more

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Cameras at Supreme Court Debated Before Senate Panel

On Monday, two senators introduced legislation to require the Supreme Court to permit video coverage of its hearings. A day later, lead witnesses appearing before Congress questioned the national legislature’s authority to impose cameras on the high court.

The legislation by Sens. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, and Richard Durbin, D-Illinois, raises questions about the constitutional separation of powers, lawyer Maureen Mahoney and Chief Judge Anthony Scirica of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit told the Senate Judiciary Committee, according to a Blog of Legal Times post.

The issue has gained heightened attention in the wake of the high court’s decision to hear a challenge to the constitutionality of the new federal health care law, and C-SPAN has asked to televise the five and a half hours of oral arguments set in March (see Gavel Grab).

Former Sen. Arlen Specter (D-Pa.), who has advocated TV cameras in the Supreme Court in the past, disagreed Tuesday about the separation of powers questions. He said Congress now decides issues – including how many justices sit on the court, and when it starts hearing arguments each year – that affect the Court. About the health care case, Specter testified, “That is a case which touches every American and ought to be accessible to the public.” Read more

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Why Airing Health Care Arguments on TV May be 'Doomed'

New York Times reporter Adam Liptak clearly doesn’t think much of the Supreme Court’s resistance to televised oral arguments, especially in the federal health care case next March.

Yet Liptak does a solid job of cataloging the justices’ objections that probably have “doomed” a request by C-SPAN to broadcast the oral arguments, in a Times article entitled, “Supreme Court TV? Nice Idea, but not Likely.”

There is an view that the public won’t understand the oral arguments, or how they fit into the court’s work. There is concern the image of justices or attorneys might be tarnished if they change their ways under heightened public scrutiny. There is a worry about justices’ personal privacy. And some justices don’t want to see their remarks removed from context into a TV sound bite.

“The arguments against cameras are mostly rooted in paternalism or self-interest,” Liptak writes. Read more

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Washington Post: Permit Televising of Health Care Arguments

Another leading national newspaper is urging the Supreme Court to permit televising of oral arguments in March over a challenge to the new federal health care law. The case “would be a fitting vehicle for the court’s first televised argument,” a Washington Post editorial said.

A New York Times editorial recently took a similar tack, urging the high court to let C-SPAN broadcast the five-and-a-half hours scheduled for oral argument next year (see Gavel Grab).

The Post editorial rejects reasons raised by justices on the high court for opposing a broadcast, including a potential disruption of decorum, providing an opportunity for attorneys or even justices to “ham it up,” or risking personal security for the justices by making them more recognizable to citizens. The editorial responds:

“These are not arguments for banning cameras; they are arguments for banning virtually all coverage of the court and the justices. No reasonable person would accept that.”

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