The upcoming experiment with camera coverage of federal district courts will be governed by a restrictive set of rules announced Wednesday by a committee of the Judicial Conference. The three-year experiment begins July 18 at 14 district courts around the country.
The Judicial Conference voted last September to launch the pilot project testing the impact of camera access in federal district courts. The Conference ran a similar experiment in the early 1990s with generally positive results. But then the excesses of the O.J. Simpson trial set back the cause for cameras in federal courts for more than a decade. The new experiment comes after prodding by Congress, with an assist from some federal judges who see a need for the courts to tap technology in the interest of educating the public.
Cameras have been allowed in almost all states at one or more levels, in some cases for decades. The federal appeals courts have been allowed to permit broadcast coverage at their discretion, but only the 2nd and 9th have voted to do so. The Supreme Court's own ban on cameras continues without any prospect for change.
Even as outlined last September, the federal experiment at the district court level seemed like a limited one. Video would be allowed only in civil proceedings in which both parties consented. In the two federal appeals courts where cameras are allowed, the parties have no such veto power.
But the fine details of the experiment were left to the conference's committee on court administration and court management. Those were announced today, imposing even more limitations on the experiment -- some of which echo rules in state courts, and others that do not.
Under the new rules, no live broadcasts will be permitted, but the video will be posted at some later point on the federal courts' central Web site as well as the local court's site, at the court's discretion. It is entirely up to the judge which cases are recorded, and "it is not intended that a grant or denial ... be subject to appellate review," the guidelines state. The judge must inform court participants that a proceeding is being recorded, and can impose additional restrictions on the recording.
The cameras must be under the complete control of the court, according to the rules, and cameras either owned by the court or a contractor with the court will be used. No photos of jurors, jury voir dire, or sidebar conferences will be permitted.
What's more, the presiding judge must have the ability to switch off the coverage at any time, and can do so to protect the rights of parties and witnesses, the dignity of the court, or "for any reason considered necessary or appropriate" by the judge.
C-SPAN general counsel Bruce Collins criticized the guidelines for giving judges and the parties too much power over the process. "The judges are showing no courage in this, compared to the states," said Collins. "We ought to be able to cover court proceedings the way we cover congressional hearings. What are they afraid of?"
But Davis Wright Tremaine partner Thomas Burke said the "cautious approach" reflected in the rules is understandable "if you consider the landscape" of the federal courts' longstanding reluctance to allow cameras in. Burke has represented media organizations in disputes over coverage of federal court proceedings, including the Proposition 8 trial in San Francisco.
"The federal courts are never going to go from a crawl to a flat-out run" on this issue, Burke said, but rather will take time before they develop a comfort level with cameras. Hence some of the restrictive regulations, though Burke said the provision requiring a "kill switch" for the presiding judge is not that unusual in state courts.
One possible advantage Burke saw in the the way the experiment is being set up is that media use of the video will not depend on broadcast camera crews actually being in the courtroom from gavel to gavel. The media will be able to draw footage for its coverage from the courts' online video file, which could also be streamed from start to finish on media web sites.
Burke did voice concern over the absence of technical requirements for the quality of the video taken by the courts. The rules envision use of courts' existing cameras used for other purposes. The experiment will falter, Burke said, if the quality of the video is insufficient for the news media to broadcast, though he said that in the end the media may just "take what they can get." He added, "what matters is that there is movement" on the issue of camera access.
The courts selected for the experiment range from urban trial courts in San Francisco, Chicago and Miami to those in Des Moines, Omaha and Guam.