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Camera use in federal courtrooms

The media’s use of technology has evolved since the ‘60s, but on the federal level, courts have struggled to keep up with the rapidly changing industry. The courts are naturally more slow-moving than the media, whose success hinges on having the latest information as soon as possible. Even today, the use of cameras in federal criminal courtrooms of all levels is strictly prohibited, except in the Second and Ninth Circuit Appeals courts and in rare pilot programs the federal system has implemented, once in the ‘90s, and once again for  a three-year trial period starting in 2011 in 14 federal district courts.

I’ve previously explored the U.S. Supreme Court’s extreme hesitancy to allow use of cameras during the ‘60s, but one particular case deserves reexamination from that post.

In the 1965 case of Estes v. Texas, the court threw out a conviction because a trial judge had allowed about a dozen reporters to videotape a pretrial hearing. The U.S. Supreme Court played up the self-consciousness cameras can create for everyone involved – lawyers, judges and witnesses posturing to the camera, trying their best to impress rather than to get at the truth. At that point in time, 48 state courts and the federal courts had banned camera use in courtrooms.

The use of cameras in the criminal courtroom is an inherent denial of due process, the court said:

The television camera is a powerful weapon. Intentionally or inadvertently it can destroy an accused and his case in the eyes of the public … We have already examined the ways in which public sentiment can affect the trial participants. To the extent that television shapes that sentiment, it can strip the accused of a fair trial.

The court refused to consider the possibility of a future where camera usage did not automatically render a judicial proceeding inherently unfair. Instead, the court wrote, “Our judgment cannot be rested on the hypothesis of tomorrow but must take the facts as they are presented today. The judgment is therefore reversed.”

But in the next decades that followed, camera technology rapidly improved and even American ownership of televisions increased dramatically.

This set the scene for the 1981 U.S.  Supreme Court decision Chandler v. Florida. A criminally convicted defendant challenged a Florida state law that allowed camera usage in criminal courtrooms, charging that camera use had resulted in an unfair trial.

Upon decision, the Supreme Court declined to directly overturn Estes, concluding that it “did not announce a constitutional rule that all photographic or broadcast coverage of criminal trials is inherently a denial of due process.” But in practice, the court did in fact overturn the spirit of the Estes decision. The court also declined to establish a First Amendment right to use cameras in a criminal courtroom. Instead, the court rooted its decision in the concept of federalism, that federal government and state governments are both sovereign. Painting the decision as a states’ rights issue instead of a First Amendment issued, the court said:

It is not necessary either to ignore or to discount the potential danger to the fairness of a trial in a particular case in order to conclude that Florida may permit the electronic media to cover trials in its state courts. Dangers lurk in this, as in most experiments, but unless we were to conclude that television coverage under all conditions is prohibited by the Constitution, the states must be free to experiment. We are not empowered by the Constitution to oversee or harness state procedural experimentation; only when the state action infringes fundamental guarantees are we authorized to intervene.

Currently every state in the U.S. allows some use of cameras in courtrooms. Mississippi and South Dakota, the last holdouts, changed their camera use policies in 2001. Currently the federal courts allow the public access to audio recordings, and all the 14 district courts (for example, the Northern District of California) have archived copies of some videotaped judicial proceedings accessible online. The federal Cameras in Courts project will last up to 2014, which the Federal Judicial Center will conduct a study of that will determine the fate of camera usage in federal courtrooms in the future.

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