In late June, Utah's top judicial administrative body, the Utah Judicial Council, voted to support a significant change to how the public views the inner workings of courtrooms. Utahns should tell the courts they support the change, too.
The rule, studied for more than a year by an ad hoc courts committee, will allow electronic media coverage of criminal and civil court proceedings. Utah court administrators have invited online public comment on the rule until August 24.
The change would move Utah from one of the most restrictive states in terms of court access for electronic coverage to the top tier of states allowing electronic media coverage. In fact, if approved it will be first time Utahns will have ever seen recorded video of their trial courts.
For the last 25 years, only still cameras have been allowed inside Utah's trial courtrooms. Video cameras have been only allowed inside appellate courtrooms. This trend toward openness is an example to other branches of state and local government.
Jeffrey J. Hunt, a Salt Lake City media attorney who headed the subcommittee reviewing the cameras-in-the-courtroom policy, said, "Under the new rule, the news media for the first time will be able to show the public what actually transpires in Utah courtrooms, through live or recorded audiovisual coverage a true sea change in terms of public access."
Donald W. Meyers, the Society of Professional Journalists Region 9 director and a Tribune staffer, also supports the rule change because more Utahns might better understand what takes place in Utah courtrooms.
"For many Utahns, this might provide their first look into the judicial system," Meyers wrote in comments to the Council.
Among the important shifts the rule suggests is a presumption that courts are open to electronic media coverage. The only way to limit coverage is for a judge to show how courtroom cameras would harm rights to a fair trial, privacy, security or safety. This includes any courtroom where the public is allowed. Under U.S. First Amendment case law, defendants have a high bar to cross to close most criminal and civil proceedings to the public.
The new rule contains exclusions that exist under the current cameras rule. Journalists cannot photograph jurors until dismissed, documents not admitted into the record or minors. To minimize disruption, news organizations must use a single pool photographer and silent equipment.
While the rule properly keeps the judge in control of the courtroom atmosphere, he or she cannot simply close a proceeding because of preference.
Sara Israelsen-Hartley, a Deseret News reporter, wrote to the Judicial Council: "Having reported on court hearings for many years, I applaud this new, proposed rule, which I believe will increase the public's appreciation of the intricate and nuanced aspects of the judicial system, as well as promote a greater understanding of the humanity of those involved."
The rule change also comes with another rule aimed at the use of electronic devices, such as smartphones and tablets, inside courthouses and courtrooms. In general, the public and court personnel are allowed to use electronic devices inside courthouses and can silently use them in the courtroom. However, photography inside the courtroom using a smartphone or other device is subject to the same rules that would guide electronic media coverage.
The rule gives latitude to judges to restrict the public's use of electronic devices in the courthouse and courtroom. At least one commenter on the courts web site doesn't like the rule because of such judicial discretion.
Joel Campbell is an associate journalism professor at BYU. He writes about First Amendment and open government issues for the Tribune. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Let your voice be heard
The public may comment on the proposed rules by going to the following web address before August 24: http://www.utcourts.gov/resources/rules/comments/ and clicking on the "Comments" link after the section entitled 2012-08-24, Code of Judicial Administration. To view the proposed electronic media rules, click on "CJA 04-0401.01"Â or new rule governing electronic devices at "CJA 04-0401.02."