A New York Times editorial argues in favor of expanding public access to judicial proceedings via video:
Cameras in the court would allow Americans to see for themselves how an extremely powerful part of their government works…Opponents of televising the lower courts argue — unpersuasively in our opinion — that cameras could deprive defendants of a fair trial by intimidating witnesses and jurors.
The Times was mostly focused on the U.S. Supreme Court, but it mentioned a claim made in lower courts — risk of witness or juror intimidation — with which CVN is exceedingly familiar. Parties regularly object to CVN’s coverage, asserting without evidence that jurors or witnesses will be intimidated, or that the presence of courtroom cameras will somehow prevent a fair trial.
The evidence is otherwise, overwhelmingly. CVN has a spotless record in webcasting legal proceedings. In covering literally hundreds of cases, and webcasting thousands of hours of legal proceedings, no judge has ever terminated CVN’s coverage, sanctioned CVN personnel, or disturbed any finding due to CVN’s activities.
This should come as no surprise. CVN understands courtroom decorum. CVN shoots proceedings with one or two small, silent cameras, using the courtroom’s normal lighting. The remainder of CVN’s equipment fits on a small table. That is why over 100 judges in 30 states have admitted CVN into their courtrooms.
CVN has covered matters civil and criminal, federal and state, jury trials and bench trials, proceedings at the trial level and the appellate level, as well as pretrial hearings and dispositive motions. The record is extensive, clear, and compelling.
And if CVN’s experience were not enough, Florida allows cameras into virtually all courtroom proceedings, and last year celebrated the 30th anniversary (pdf) of their successful experiment with public access to the judicial process.
The reason camera opponents’ speculative challenges to public access via the media’s video cameras should normally be disregarded by judges is because the public has a First Amendment right to observe judicial proceedings, and the media plays an important role in making that possible.
The United States Supreme Court has squarely recognized that the Constitution requires both the press and the public to be permitted to attend and to observe judicial proceedings absent the most compelling circumstances. These rights serve not only to educate the public about how the justice system works, but also to secure confidence in that system.
Historically, it has been the media that has brought this information to the public about trials because courtrooms are simply not large enough to accommodate everyone who may be interested in the proceedings, nor is it feasible for people to traverse the country to personally attend every trial of interest or concern.
There was perhaps a time when video coverage might have required substantial equipment, personnel, and lighting, which could have interfered with the proceedings. However, cameras have become so small and so commonplace, and CVN’s setup so unobtrusive (indeed, CVN can deploy remotely operated cameras so no personnel are in the courtroom), that it is difficult to fathom a less intrusive way to have a trial covered and meet the constitutional obligations of providing open courts.
Although judges are right to ensure that no sort of disruption interferes with a judicial proceeding, precluding access by CVN, or by any media entity that is similarly committed to being a respectful, passive observer of the judicial process, is unwarranted, and is inconsistent with the public’s constitutional right to understand its governmental institutions and responsibly participate in a democracy.
We hope that citizens, commentators, and legislators will join the New York Times in calling for improved public access to judicial proceedings.