Opening Courtroom Doors…Again
I have worked for years in organizations developing plans and systems to allow the media into trials and court hearings. Much of our justice system is conducted behind the closed doors of courtrooms with no video, sound or pictures. There was a time when the TV and radio coverage of a trial would require heavy, large and noisy equipment, but not anymore.
Many states and counties have allowed cameras and microphones into their courtrooms but the Federal courts still refuse to do it. Photographers lost the privilege in the 1930's during a sensational trial and the media, it's believed, turned the trial into a circus. In the 1980's many local courts began experiments allowing cameras inside. Then, in 1991, the federal Judicial Conference of the United States began a 3-year experiment that permitted camera coverage of federal civil trials. When the experiment deadline expired, the courts decided to just say no.
The U.S. Supreme Court recently reaffirmed its' position that cameras have no place in understanding the pursuit of justice, but some federal judges in the San Francisco area are not giving up. Judges in the Northern District of California Federal Courts are again proposing to allow cameras. They are trying to get the foot of the media in the door.
The plan is to selectively allow video coverage of civil hearings and trials, if both parties agree. The proceedings would be recorded and played later on TV or on the Internet. For instance, we might be able to finally hear the arguments in the continuing challenges to the same-sex marriage debate here. Or, we might be able to see and understand better a civil lawsuit against an oil company for allegedly polluting marshland. The judges argue their plan would accommodate the public's right to know and see what is going on in their nation's courtroom and, at the same time, protect the privacy of those involved in the case and the fairness of the justice system.
In fact, a video of the Prop 8 hearing already exists and has been played in public. Retired District Judge Vaughn Walker ordered a video recording of the trial. When it was over, he played a 3 minute portion for a college audience. The sponsors of Prop 8 are now claiming Walker acted illegally and the tape should be confiscated.
We can use mini-cameras to peer into the chamber of a heart and find a deformity and fix it, but we cannot peer into a chamber of justice to assure that our system is working. The federal judges who will not let the U.S. Supreme Court off the hook are doing the right thing. We should help them identify the concerns, study the consequences and find a way to open the doors to all courtrooms in the nation. Seeing, hearing and understanding the justice system is an important step to keeping democracy alive and well.