Hot on the heels of a national debate over whether the U.S. Supreme Court should have allowed the taping of arguments this week on health care reform, a panel of District of Columbia judges, attorneys and journalists sparred last night over the future of cameras in court.
Some state courts have allowed televised proceedings for decades, but, as in the federal trial courts, cameras historically have not been permitted in local courts in the District of Columbia. The federal judiciary is in the middle of a three-year pilot program studying the effects of cameras in 14 federal trial courts.
The Council for Court Excellence, a local nonprofit that studies administration of justice in local courts, organized last night's panel, which was hosted by Venable.
The two judges on the panel – U.S. District Chief Judge Royce Lamberth and District of Columbia Superior Court Judge Jose Lopez – said the resistance to taped proceedings, especially in criminal trials, came from a fear that witnesses would feel intimidated and decide not to testify. Lopez, who presides over the court’s domestic violence unit, said the “anti-snitching” culture in Washington is especially widespread because the city is relatively small.
U.S. Attorney Ronald Machen Jr., the city’s top prosecutor, agreed, saying he was worried about the “chilling effect” cameras could have. “I can’t tell you how real the threat is to witnesses,” he said.
Lamberth also said he thought that, even absent the intimidation factor, cameras can influence behavior in court. He cited the televised trial in 1995 against O.J. Simpson as an example, saying he thought witnesses “shaded” their testimony because they knew they would be on camera. Lamberth said he wanted to see the results of the federal judiciary’s pilot program before coming to any more conclusions.
Panelist Fred D’Ambrosi, news director of local news station WUSA, said he thought opposition to cameras was undermined by the success other state courts have had in allowing televised and recorded proceedings. D’Ambrosi said that when he was covering proceedings in Wisconsin and California, courts there successfully coordinated with members of the press to permit cameras inside.
D’Ambrosi said he hasn’t found that courts in the Washington metropolitan region are as effective at managing media coverage. “It turns into Lord of the Flies outside the courthouse,” he said, referring to the challenges reporters can face figuring out where to set up cameras and do interviews.
On the appellate level, Lamberth said he thought momentum was moving in support of recorded proceedings. “I’m probably ready to throw in the towel,” he said, adding that there is limited opposition among the judges of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit. The District of Columbia Court of Appeals, the city’s highest court, streams live audio of oral arguments through the court’s website.
In the Supreme Court, where witnesses are a non-issue, Lamberth said he thought the high court was opposed because it has a “special way” of handling proceedings and there’s a fear that cameras would disrupt the character and flow of arguments.
Other panelists included Michael Satin, training director at the D.C. Public Defender Service, and Wiley Rein partner Kathleen Kirby. Lucy Dalglish, executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, moderated the discussion.
Satin said he thought televised court proceedings in criminal trials are often “voyeuristic” at the expense of defendants and do little to add to the public’s understanding of the legal system. He said he was also concerned that members of the public would watch proceedings without any context or background information to help them understand what’s happening.
D’Ambrosi countered that court proceedings are almost always open to the public already, regardless of whether there are cameras. “The public has a right to see it,” he said.
During a question-and-answer period, Venable partner Karl Racine asked about the relationship between covering high-profile trials and ratings and advertising. Kirby, co-chair of Wiley Rein’s media practice, said coverage of big cases can help ratings, but she added that the reason for that is because there is genuine public interest in knowing about these cases.
D.C. Administrative Law Judge Sharon Goodie, a former attorney with the city’s Office of Corporation Counsel (now the Office of the Attorney General), told the panel that she was concerned about selective editing, since she had problems in the past with print reporters getting the facts wrong in their coverage of cases. She asked what the media could do to convince attorneys and judges that they wouldn’t present taped proceedings incorrectly or out of context.
D’Ambrosi acknowledged that it can be difficult to condense complicated cases and said that mistakes have been made. He said reporters strive to be accurate, and that his station booked lawyers in the past during big trials to help provide context.
The panel was part of a series of programs organized by the Council for Court Excellence on media coverage of courts and legal affairs.
National Law Journal photo by Zoe Tillman. From left, Kathleen Kirby, Michael Satin, Superior Court Judge Jose Lopez, U.S. District Chief Judge Royce Lamberth, U.S. Attorney Ron Machen and Fred D'Ambrosi.