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Cameras in Courts: Bad News, Good News

I took a few days off last week and was disappointed to return and find that the 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals had issued a decision barring the webcasting of a hearing in a recording industry file-sharing case pending in federal court in Boston. Writing for the three-judge panel, Circuit Judge Bruce M. Selya concluded:

We are mindful that good arguments can be made for and against the webcasting of civil cases. We are also mindful that emerging technologies eventually may change the way in which information -- including information about court cases -- historically has been imparted. Yet, this is not a case about free speech writ large, nor about the guaranty of a fair trial, nor about any cognizable constitutional right of public access to the courts. Our purview here is much more confined: this is a society dedicated to the rule of law; and if a controlling rule, properly interpreted, closes federal courtrooms in Massachusetts to webcasting and other forms of broadcasting (whether over the air or via the Internet), we are bound to enforce that rule.

On the heels of that disappointing decision, I had the hop put back in my step by Tony Mauro's account at The BLT of yesterday's House appropriations subcommittee hearing on the Supreme Court budget, where Justices Clarence Thomas and Stephen Breyer appeared to make the case for the court. Mauro relates what transpired:

The hearing proceeded in the same vein for a while, full of blandishments and collegiality. But then a Texas congressman decided to test just how well the justices were listening and whether they would take his heartfelt message to heart -- a strong plea to the Court to ramp up its transparency and public face. Other committee members proceeded to pile on, telling the Court that the momentum toward openness that the Internet has created is so strong that the Court would be wise not to resist it. By the end of it Breyer and Thomas could have been forgiven if they started to think they'd been hit by a coordinated attack from wild-eyed techies.

The exchange was kicked off by conservative Rep. John Culberson (R-Tex.), who urged the court to use technology to enhance its transparency. There is "no logical distinction" between the court's current practice of occasionally releasing oral argument audiotapes and the streaming of oral-argument video on the court's Web site, he asserted.

Culbersoncamera "It is a very easy matter on the Internet," Culberson said, and to prove his point, he pulled out a small digital camera, aimed it at the justices, and began streaming their images live on the Internet. You can see the video for yourself at this link. That prompted subcommittee chair Rep. Jose Serrano (D-N.Y.) to chime in and urge the court to allow in cameras. "That train has left the station to keep the people informed."

Not surprisingly, the justices defended the court's ban on cameras. Breyer said that more social science research is needed before deciding if the gains are worth the risk. Thomas likewise urged caution, while also admitting "there has been quite a bit of discussion" about the issue at the court, especially since legislation was introduced in Congress that would require the court to allow cameras.

Will yesterday's hearing be the turning point for cameras in the federal courts? "If the Court eventually, finally, says yes sometime in this century," Mauro concludes, "today's hearing of the financial services and general government subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee will have played a significant part." Meanwhile, we are prompted to remark, "Smile, justices, you're on Culberson camera!"

Posted by Robert J. Ambrogi on April 24, 2009 at 11:03 AM | Permalink | Comments (1)


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