Skip to content

Media Access to Federal Court

September 12, 2012

The Federal Court System seems to favor print reporters over broadcast reporters and by doing so the general public suffers.

In order to understand the court’s media policy, I must first explain that there are two sets of rules which govern news coverage in federal court cases: civil rules and criminal rules.

According to the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure, “the court must not permit the taking of photographs in the courtroom during judicial proceedings or the broadcasting of judicial proceedings from the courtroom.”  This means, as a television reporter I can walk in with my notepad and my pen and write a story, but I damn well better leave my camera and tripod at the door.

With all due respect to the Judicial Branch, this is ludicrous!

The powers that be have been debating cameras in courtrooms since 1972 and basically have gotten nowhere. The Judicial Conference is currently conducting a three-year pilot program where they examine the effects of cameras on district court proceedings. The pilot is limited to civil cases only, because remember… cameras in criminal cases are strictly prohibited!

While the pilot program is a step in the right direction, the courts are still missing the point. This pilot allows the courts to record the proceedings NOT the press.

On July 31, 2012 the U.S Courts issued a press release recapping the first year of the pilot program.  Judge Julie A. Robinson is spearheading the project and is quoted saying, “It is encouraging that so many civil proceedings are now available online for the public to see, as if they were in the courtroom themselves.”

It is encouraging. However, it’s not enough.

The Federal Court System is clearly behind the times and its antiquated media policy is forcing television reporters to act more like paparazzi than real journalists.

When television reporters want to cover a federal court case, they have to stand outside the courthouse and chase down the parties in order to get video to tell the story. It’s completely ridiculous. In fact, the lack of access to the courtroom acts as a deterrent for TV reporters. Why should I have to change my medium just because a judge refuses to change with the times?

Playing the Devil’s Advocate

Those opposed to cameras in the courtroom believe it will negatively impact the outcome of the court proceedings.

Judge Jan DuBois participated in the pilot program. She said, “In my opinion, cameras in the district court could seriously jeopardize [the right to a fair and impartial trial] because of their impact on parties, witnesses and jurors.”

The Judicial Conference claims, “The intimidating effect of cameras on some witnesses and jurors is cause for concern.”

U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia said, “We don’t want to become entertainment. I think there’s something sick about making entertainment out of real people’s legal problems. I don’t like it in the lower courts, and I particularly don’t like it in the Supreme Court.”

Making the Point

The State of Montana allows cameras in every courtroom. I have covered cases in Justice Court, District Court and the Montana Supreme Court. In every situation, the judges are flexible, accepting and open. They allow and welcome the press.

I genuinely do not believe the integrity of their courtrooms have been negatively impacted by the presence of cameras. In fact, I believe it holds them accountable for their decisions and allows the public to see the importance of what they do everyday. Kudos to the judges here in Montana who believe in public access to the judicial system and accountability in government.

I just hope our federal partners will take a lesson from Montana and open their doors to the 21st century and embrace the modern technology that reporters are using.

One Comment leave one →
  1. Tom Banks permalink
    September 14, 2012 11:17 am

    Great article…well done, good thoughts, articulating spoken.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: