Lights, Camera, Not So Much Action

9th Circuit CourthouseCue the lights. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court has inked a deal to provide gavel-to-gavel coverage of its oral arguments for PCN, a local non-profit cable television network. Coverage is expected to begin Sept. 13.

 A decade ago all 50 states opened their doors to some form of cameras in local courts. South Dakota became the last state to allow cameras in July 2001. Pennsylvania’s decision adds the state Supreme Court to its existing rules allowing cameras in trial courts.

So what’s wrong with the federal courts?  The federal trial courts always blacked out for cameras.  But that is about to change with a new experiment, although slowly.

 n July 18, the federal trial courts began a digital video experiment with 14 courts in a dozen states to evaluate the effect of cameras in the courtroom. The district courts volunteered to participate.  The recordings will be posted on the judiciary’s national website ( and participating court’s local websites. 

But with any change in the federal courts, it will be slow, and for open court advocates it will be painful.

Cameras will be allowed only in civil proceedings, not criminal.  Both sides must agree to the recording and the judge must agree.  Also the court must control the camera, provide the equipment – almost guaranteeing it will not be high quality, according to Chief Judge Robert S. Lasnik, of Seattle.  He explained the pilot project to the 9th Circuit Judicial Conference meeting in Carlsbad, Calif. this week. 

And the judge will have to review the recording after the fact, almost guaranteeing it won’t be current for news outlets, Lasnik added.  That got a big laugh for the gathered judges.

The pilot project will last three years and will still be subject to approval before it may be expanded beyond the current limited use.

The San Francisco-based Northern District of California almost got a jump on the experiment by recording the Proposition 8 trial, which is the voter initiative that banned same-sex marriage.  That broadcast was to be limited to a few law schools and other federal courthouses to allow greater public viewing.  But the U.S. Supreme Court nixed the plan saying the rule change approving the cameras wasn’t properly vetted. Now the San Francisco court’s recordings are the subject of a legal fight to make them public. 

The Judicial Conference of the U.S., the administrative body of the courts,  approved the new experiment. The participating federal courts are in Alabama, California, Florida, Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, Massachusetts, Missouri, Nebraska, Ohio, Tennessee and Washington.

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