Campbell: Cameras in courtroom foster judicial credibility
All the way from the U.S. Supreme Court to Utah's trial courts, there appears to be growing support for cameras and other technology in the courtroom. Utahns should support changes to make the judicial process in Utah and at the federal level more transparent and accountable.
This month, several national media groups filed a letter asking the U.S. Supreme Court to open its hallowed gallery to television cameras as it considers oral arguments in three cases addressing the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, otherwise known as the Obama health care plan.
"The issue of access to affordable health care strikes at the core of our relationship with our government, especially in this time of great economic turmoil," said a letter from the American Society of Newspaper Editors to the high court. Supreme Court justices have long resisted live audio broadcasts, let alone video feeds.
Former Judge Ken Starr, the president of Baylor University, former federal judge and independent counsel in Clinton-era investigations, wrote a recent New York Times op-ed calling for cameras in the Supreme Court.
"Year after year, the court issues decisions that profoundly affect the nation. Think of civics classes. Retired Justice Sandra Day O'Connor is one of many who have lately lamented the apparent collapse of civic literacy in public schools," Starr wrote. "Think of older Americans affected by President Obama's health care program. Think of women or other groups affected by important class-action cases, like the Wal-Mart discrimination case last term. These citizens should have a chance to hear what the justices think about important questions that touch their lives."
Utahns should let Supreme Court justices and the Utah congressional delegation know that they want to watch Supreme Court proceedings. Justices should realize that opening the judicial curtain will both demystify their work and build public confidence in court decisions.
The same goes for Utah. Although the state's appellate courts have allowed video cameras at the state Court of Appeals and Supreme Court hearings for years, Utah ranks among the most restrictive in terms of camera access to trial courts, according to a Radio Television Digital News Association report. Utah court rules allow only still photography taken by a single media pool photographer inside criminal trial courtrooms.
Things may be changing. A 12-member Judicial Council Committee of Technology Brought into the Courtroom started meeting in April to consider cameras and social media use in Utah's courtrooms.
Ironically, much of the state committee's work has been kept under wraps, and the public has not been allowed to attend meetings. A court spokeswoman has said the group has been following a long-standing judicial policy which suggests such administrative committees aren't subject to the state's open meetings act. Despite the secrecy, minutes and proposals released publicly show promise.
In the minutes of its September meeting, just released this month, the subcommittee proposed that electronic devices, such as smartphones, be allowed in Utah's courthouses and courtrooms, with the judges having discretion to restrict their use.
Under the proposed rule, people may silently use electronic devices inside a courtroom or courthouse, but they can't take photographs or conduct any audio or video recording or transmission.
District court judges opposed the rule and said that all such devices should be banned from courthouses, citing concerns about safety and jury misconduct, but a majority of the committee supported the policy and will likely move forward to the state's governing Judicial Council, minutes show.
Committee members were scheduled to hear a policy this month to permit greater camera access to district court hearings. Details of the plan have been not publicly released.
It is a benefit to all Americans to have greater access to court information and proceedings. Let's hope both federal and state administrators will review the basic philosophy of openness and transparency and more completely apply it to this third, but often misunderstood, branch of government.
Joel Campbell is a former reporter and current associate professor of communications at Brigham Young University. His reporting does not necessarily reflect the views of BYU. He writes on First Amendment and open-government issues for The Tribune. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.