Supreme Court Says No Cameras In The Courtroom

from the aren't-the-courts-public? dept

In something of a repeat of the judicial system barring the videotaping and live broadcast of Joel Tenenbaum’s trial, the Supreme Court voted to bar video streaming of a controversial court case in California. The 5 – 4 ruling was supported mainly on procedural grounds — about how the courts couldn’t make such a “change” without giving more notice. It’s difficult to comprehend how that makes any sense. This is not a massive “change” in procedures or anything that affects how the judicial system works. It’s merely an attempt to provide more transparency to what goes on in the court rooms, which seems like an extremely laudable goal, no matter where you stand on the various cases where this issue has come up.

Of course, while officially the ruling was about procedural issues, the majority did also claim a fear that broadcasting the trial would put a chill on witnesses. This seems backwards. This is the public court system, and reporters are allowed to report on (most) cases, so anyone who testifies is going to be known to the public anyway and what they say will be reported on, too. How is that any different than if the video is recorded and broadcast in some manner? If there are special cases where video might create a real chilling effect, deal with those special cases, rather than pushing a blanket “no video rule.” As Justin Silverman wrote before the ruling came out, the idea that videos in the courtroom would lead to attacks on witnesses made no sense, since it was already illegal to attack witnesses and we have a legal system to deal with that:

What good is giving the press freedom if it is not allowed to use the tool of its trade? In this case, that tool is a video camera. Similarly, law enforcement has many tools of its trade, the most important being the law. In California, the law includes prohibiting the very acts Prop 8 supporters and–apparently–the Justices are so concerned about. Perhaps it’s too much to ask, but can we just let both journalists and police do their jobs?

By staying the broadcast of this trial–and impliedly finding that Prop 8 supporters will suffer “irreparable harm” absent a stay–the Supreme Court seems to be advocating curtailment of the press as a means of law enforcement. In a sense, there’s a backwards Heckler’s Veto at play: the Court is protecting the right of witnesses to speak by limiting the ways in which they will be heard and preventing retaliation by those who will not have heard them. Instead, those witnesses should take the stand knowing they will be given the largest forum possible in which to speak and the strongest protection against those who may retaliate when they do so.

And that retaliation is a big may. Among their reasons for requesting a stay, the petitioners say that “public broadcast can intimidate witnesses who might refuse to testify or alter their stories when they do testify if they fear retribution by someone who may be watching the broadcast.” Further, “all of the petitioners’ witnesses have expressed concern over the potential public broadcast of trial proceedings and some have stated that they will refuse to testify if the district court goes forward with its plan.”

In a controversial case such as this one, no doubt the unpopular speaker is a nervous one. But I’m skeptical that witnesses already committed to testifying will suddenly shy away because of the prospect of video dissemination. Do they not realize that, without a single camera, the San Jose Mercury News is reporting live accounts that include the names of those taking the stand? That special interest groups will be Twittering their testimony as they speak? That there are already websites identifying Prop 8 supporters and where they live? Banning a broadcast, I believe, will not change this. But to allow a broadcast, I’m certain, will further enlighten the debate….

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Comments on “Supreme Court Says No Cameras In The Courtroom”

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66 Comments
jjmsan (profile) says:

Re: Thoughts

Except it is not just Mary Smith, the record will also state other identifying information. No one ever seems to have trouble finding out who the witnesses are if they want to. If the number of cameras is a problem they can be limited to one feed. This all sounds like the arguments made against cameras in the US Senate. In fact the fears were unfounded and the Senate works just as well as it did before the cameras were installed. The Supreme Court is just afraid that if the Federal Courts start having cameras the Supreme Court will have to also.

Anonymous Coward says:

I wonder...

I have been a witness in a trial exactly once. Though cameras in that particular case would have been irrelevant (i.e., I would still have testified), I wonder whether I would testify if cameras were present and the defendant was the member of a gang known for killing people. Testifying against a gang member even without the cameras is scary enough, but with cameras, I might not.

Daneil says:

Disagree with one part

“Of course, while officially the ruling was about procedural issues, the majority did also claim a fear that broadcasting the trial would put a chill on witnesses.”

I have to agree with this. Be it a criminal case or a civil, most people wouldn’t like being recorded on the stand. It’s not just one camera, either. In high profile cases, every newspaper, magazine, and journalist would have their cameras, recording devices, etc. etc. all aimed at the person on the stand. Most people fear possible repercussions from anyone on either side of the debate. I’d be less apt to say a word if I had 50 cameras pointed at me. All eyes in the courtroom listening to me is bad enough as I am definitely not one for public speaking. Chances are, I’d miss some important bit of the story while retelling what happened.

ChrisB (profile) says:

Re: Disagree with one part

Except if you read even the summary, you would realize that THEIR TESTIMONY IS ALREADY BEING RECORDED!

“Do they not realize that, without a single camera, the San Jose Mercury News is reporting live accounts that include the names of those taking the stand? That special interest groups will be Twittering their testimony as they speak? That there are already websites identifying Prop 8 supporters and where they live?”

The camera’s would not change anything, all it would do would be to add another distribution channel.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

lol…A witness is protected under the law…lol. You are soooo funny. The protection of the law and $1.50 will get you a cup of coffee and an execution.

Yes, there may be a gang member in the audience. So what? Depending on what drugs the gang member is doing, they may or may not remember you, much less the trial. However, with a picture, not only will that member never forget, the other members of the gang, regardless of where they are, will never forget. Gangs have a long memory.

Peter (profile) says:

that gay gang

Yeah, the witnesses in support of Prop 8, who have all been on the airwaves extensively spouting their venom, are being protected from those vicious gangs in support of equal rights for gays.

The entire basis of the decision is the genuine threat of irreparable harm to those witnesses. It’s total b.s., as the 4 dissenters pointed out.

Daniel says:

Cameras here!!! But not there!!! Over here is okay!!! Not over there!!!

Where are all the screams of ‘big brother’ now? Everyone complains about red light cameras or speeding cameras or surveillance cameras because of ‘big brother’ or it causes more accidents. Then they want cameras in the courtrooms? The court reporter already records via voice and typing machine. That should be enough. In fact, the whole purpose of those two are to keep witnesses anonymous should anyone listen again, whereby the name only but not the face would come up.

Make up your minds… Do you want cameras? Or don’t you?

Daniel says:

Re: Re: Cameras here!!! But not there!!! Over here is okay!!! Not over there!!!

The point I was making is that the idea sounds great right now. “Oh, open up all of the courtrooms to cameras so that everyone can watch.” It happens to one case, pretty soon every defense or prosecuting attorney wants it in their case to draw attention to it. Everyone who stands to benefit from it is saying “Yes! We want cameras to see what’s happening!” which is exactly what happened with speed cameras. People thought it was a good idea… is it? No. It increased accidents.

Put cameras in the courtroom, murders of witnesses go up, and then everyone changes their tune screaming “No! Bad idea! Take them out! It’s everyone else’s fault for doing it.” “The people who installed the cameras and the recording equipment are looking to profit on government courtrooms! They are the cause of our problems!”

Next time, use your brain to figure it out before calling people names. You know better… Dumbass.

ChurchHatesTucker (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Cameras here!!! But not there!!! Over here is okay!!! Not over there!!!

“Oh, open up all of the courtrooms to cameras so that everyone can watch.”

This isn’t about opening all courtrooms, and it certainly isn’t a gangland murder case. It’s advocacy for/against a proposition. If you don’t want to be associated with your advocacy, shut the hell up.

The Infamous Joe (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Cameras here!!! But not there!!! Over here is okay!!! Not over there!!!

First, sorry about the “dumbass” remark, I misunderstood your point.

Second:

Put cameras in the courtroom, murders of witnesses go up

I could be wrong, but witness names are a matter of public record as is their testimony. They can be video taped entering and leaving the court room. There are actual, real live *people* in the court room, looking at the witnesses. Allowing cameras in the courtroom will do nothing to make witnesses more or less safe. This “harm for witnesses” line is nothing but a straw man. If someone wanted to do harm to a witness, they have the tool required to do so, and we already have laws in place against it.

The real “fear” here is that your next door neighbor probably won’t take the time go down and request a transcript of the trial proceedings. He might watch a feed of it on the nightly news, though. These people are not afraid of being murdered, they’re afraid of being found out that they are (in this case) homophobic bigots.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Cameras here!!! But not there!!! Over here is okay!!! Not over there!!!

Joe:

I have to disagree with you regarding what you think is a straw man. Regardless of the “real” danger from cameras, cameras in the courtroom can have a chilling effect on witnesses. I am not so sure that murders of witnesses will go up, but refusals to testify might.

Yes, names of witnesses are public record. Okay, just where does Mary Smith live? What does she look like? How would you go about finding her with just her name?

Yes, people can be taped entering and leaving a courtroom, but you can also shield your face from cameras. Tough to do on a witness stand.

Funny you should mention homophobic bigots, because I was thinking about witnesses against the mob, gangs and even some violent criminals. Since I am not a homophobic bigot, does that make me a violent criminal bigot?

I state what has been stated before. Put cameras in a courtroom and I may not testify, depending on who the criminal is. I will already have a lot of exposure just being in the courtroom. I do not need my face highlighted on YouTube (or SerialKillerTube) as the person who had the key testimony and Sam “The Mutilator” Marks (fake name!), known mob enforcer.

Peter (profile) says:

public access

Daniel: Big Brother? Courts are public; the issue is public access to matters the public has a right to have access to. Surveillance is a different issue altogether. Are we supposed to begin to act as if the police are watching us all the time? I suppose you think that’s a good idea. Others, myself included, don’t, and Mike’s got a pretty good case that it’s just plain stupid because those cameras make driving less, not more, safe. But there’s a public trial going on about an issue of constitutional importance. Is it better that we not be able to see it if we want to? The Supreme Court concluded that the answer is yes, for one reason only: being broadcast would pose a real threat of harm to the proponents of Prop 8, who, it so happens, have already been quite visible on airwaves expressing their views on that subject.

Ima Fish (profile) says:

I work in a court and the common belief is that cameras in the courtroom would turn hearings and trials into spectacles, with attorneys putting on shows for the entertainment of those watching.

There are two problems with that belief. First, judges have authority to limit such displays. And second, the vast majority of attorneys are not entertainers and simply want to proceed with the hearing/trial in an efficient manner.

Cameras will be allowed. The old fogeys have to die off first.

Peter (profile) says:

It is not a situation where if one trial is televised all will be. Courts can and do respond, as in this case, to the individual circumstances of each case. Quite plainly in a case in which there is a threat a witness will be murdered as a result of his testimony, protections can and are put in place. (After all, the courtroom is open to the public.) The criticism of this decision is that the Supreme Court found that the witnesses in favor of Prop 8 had a legitimate fear of such threat. That finding seems ridiculous in light of the fact that those witnesses all have been quite visible already expressing their views in the mass media.

jjmsan (profile) says:

Limited Broadcast.

Slate has a nice writeup of the controversy
http://www.slate.com/id/2241498/
The broadcast was to be to 5 additional courthouses. Given this I would say there is even less justification for the Supreme Courts action. If, for example, there was a decision to hold a trail in an concert hall to provide a larger number of seats should that be blocked also?

Reed (profile) says:

Prop 8/Hate supporters don't want to be called out

I can already tell you what is going to happen in this trial. They are going to get Prop 8 supporters and ask them why they believe there should not be gay marriage. Of course it has to do with their religious beliefs, but wait…. Are they allowed to force their religious beliefs on other people in the US?

So supporters don’t want to look like jackasses on camera and allow everyone to see just how stupid they really are. Regardless which way this case goes there is only one logical answer in my honest opinion.

I for one am all for video taping these trials, maybe it would make rabid religious wack-jobs think twice before thrusting their beliefs on others if they knew that everyone in the US would be watching them after the shit went down.

I think in the end they really are just cowards afraid they will be black balled for using their power to oppress fellow American citizens.

Ruin20 says:

Re: Re: Re: Prop 8/Hate supporters don't want to be called out

Hey,

“So supporters don’t want to look like jackasses on camera and allow everyone to see just how stupid they really are.”

Anyone who supports Prop 8 has to be a jackass? They’re stupid? This is not intolerance?

“maybe it would make rabid religious wack-jobs think twice before thrusting their beliefs on others if they knew that everyone in the US would be watching them after the shit went down.” is not hateful?

I don’t support prop 8. But I see some of the reasons why someone might oppose gay marriage, and have nothing to do with religion. Can deal with taxes, as married couples enjoy tax benefits. Can deal philosophically with why marriage is favorably treated from a tax prospective (encourages population growth which is still important for the economy: note I don’t say parenting one can become a parent through adoption which does not stimulate population growth but is good in it’s own sense). Not everyone who’s opposing it even on religious grounds has to be a hateful whack job.

Reed (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Prop 8/Hate supporters don't want to be called out

Look at the statistics for Prop 8 and you will see it is NOT people who are concerned about tax breaks or philosophical disagreement who voted for it. I don’t mean to be rude, but the argument for procreation is plain ridiculous for several reasons. Why then allow people past child bearing years to get married? Or people that are infertile?

Prop 8 also marks one of the few times a state’s constitution has been amended to take people’s rights away and to actively discriminate against a particular group of people.

I have studied this stuff as a master level social worker so I am not just a punk kid blowing crap out my ass. I have also been married for 12 years and would never think of denying two people who are in love their right to the benefits provided by a civil union or marriage that I already enjoy.

I may be a bit passionate about this subject and go overboard, but it is for good reason.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Prop 8/Hate supporters don't want to be called out

So, you really do not care whether there are cameras in the courtroom. You are just figuring this is a clever way of overcoming opposition to a controversial proposition. What next? Send Gary “The Gutter” Larson to your house to cut on you until you stop disagreeing with something you do not believe in?

Reed (profile) says:

Re: Re: Prop 8/Hate supporters don't want to be called out

“So, you really do not care whether there are cameras in the courtroom.”

Re-read my post and try again. I am all for cameras in this trial because I believe it will show just how stupid it is to force your religious belief on others.

There is nothing “clever” here, unless you think passing a amendment to the constitution that actively discriminates against fellow Americans citizens based on your religious beliefs is cool.

Ruin20 says:

Re: bigot shield law

That’s exactly the kind of chilling effect on a witness that the courts want to avoid. It’s bigots in this case, its someone who’s admitting to an affair or doing drugs in connection with a murder in another case.

If I had to admit something embarrassing or support something controversial in a case it would be at least some condolence that it’s not going to live forever on youtube. And remember, for every witness there will always be an attempt by one side to discredit them.

Stephen says:

Re: Re: bigot shield law

The ironic thing, it’s the people that used to be in the closet who are more than happy to come out in public and state their desire to be married like heterosexuals, and it’s the bigots who want to hide from scorn and public shame. If that doesn’t show society is changed and those who in prior years would have attacked gays with hoods on are out of touch, I don’t know what could.

This is not a murder trial. This is a political trial. If these bigots want to stand up and be counted, they should have the courage to do so. But bigots are, by definition, cowards.

Anonymous Coward says:

This is not a massive “change” in procedures or anything that affects how the judicial system works. It’s merely an attempt to provide more transparency to what goes on in the court rooms, which seems like an extremely laudable goal, no matter where you stand on the various cases where this issue has come up.

The Supreme Court has no problem with changes in the rules to provide more transparency. What they didn’t like was that a “pilot program” for a new rule change should begin with such a high-profile trial and not go through the usual mechanics for such rules changes.

Paul (profile) says:

political reasons

I think the reason is political. Court rooms produce one version of the truth, but not always the complete truth and I think the supreme court is worried that if the public can readily see this, especially outside the U.S. the perception of justice in the US would be degraded.

Well possibly I might be on the wrong track, but it is one possibility.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Lets put cameras in voting booths

After all, voting booths are in public places. I also think we should put cameras at the entrances of all free clinics, because those are public places too. Also, those “adult video” stores. We have a right to know who is doing what. News at 11: Top Pentagon official videotaped going into “adult” video store.

Somehow people seem to think that surveillance by the press is better than surveillance by the government.

Anonymous Coward says:

There’s absolutely no reason for all court proceedings on all levels of the justice system not to be video recorded. Any concerns for the safety of victims, witnesses, or defendants can be easily rectified by careful placement of the cameras.

The courts will parade a myriad of lame excuses trumped up concerns, but the real reason they want to bar video recording equipment is so they can more easily cover up the frightening mess of the process they use to achieve ‘justice’.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

I would agree to recording of trials as long as the recording was limited to the plaintiff and defendant and kept away from witnesses and the jury.

I should point out that some courts with cameras warn that they are there so that people can choose whether they are recorded. A jury is unable to decline entrance. A witness may be conflicted with respect to the camera. I know that in some circumstances I would.

Fentex says:

I think it’s a tacit admission that mainstream media is part of the social system.

Because court reporters have long followed conventions about what and how to report courts are okay with their presence and methods as they are proven to cooperate with expectations.

But to introduce new reportes or new methods or provide the raw data for others to do as they please with is to upset a social order.

If the new reporters do not adher to convention then they may very well challenge the norms by which the court operates and changes to norms scare people, especially people weilding authority.

Anonymous Coward says:

This story isn’t exactly fresh, but I thought I would leave this. I like to watch interviews with different members of the Supreme Court and the thing that always fascinates me is how ordinary and unaccustomed to attention they are. I still have trouble deciding if this is a good thing, but some part of me is inexplicably very pleased that our Supreme Court judges are not “celebrities.”

TV cameras change people and I would hate to think that judges would start trying to become “popular” either through their actions or their rulings.

Of course, the argument could be made that it would make the process more transparent but I think what we have now is a healthy balance, court cases are open and people can report on them, but we don’t put them “on stage” and turn them into performances.

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