'Baby Steps' Toward Open Courtrooms?

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The public wants more access to the judicial system. In the past few years, states have responded by allowing more cameras into more courtroom proceedings. But federal courts have been slower to make change.

Following our story last week, “Cameras and 'Making a Murderer”, The Crime Report asked readers: “Should cameras be given unrestricted access to all phases of a courtroom trial?”

Some 63 percent responded “Yes.” 24 percent responded “No.” The remainder submitted comments only, with many of those commenters responding favorably to more cameras in court, but with restrictions—such as not filming juries or delaying the broadcasting of proceedings.

“The 6th Amendment provides for public trials ,” one reader observed. “Cameras merely admit more members of the public to the trial.”

That doesn't seem to be a problem for state courts. As TCR reported last week, states that have long prohibited cameras are beginning to question their rules—a sign that it's probably just a matter of time until cameras are allowed into all state courts. But for federal courts, especially the Supreme Court, change has been slower. And when it comes, it's more likely to come in “baby steps.”

That's how one prominent transparency advocate, Gabe Roth, described it. Roth, who is the executive director of Fix the Court and previously managed the Coalition for Court Transparency, called the current Supreme Court system of releasing audio of proceedings at the end of every week “antiquated and undemocratic and ridiculous.”

In surveys asking whether the Supreme Court should broadcast its proceedings, people overwhelmingly support the idea. In a poll conducted last year by C-SPAN and Penn Schoen Berland, 76 percent of respondents said the Supreme Court should allow TV coverage, which is an increase of 15 percent from a 2009 survey.

Public support for more access doesn't seem to matter very much to the justices, Roth says. When asked how much he thinks public opinion matters to Supreme Court justices on the issue of cameras in court, he laughed.

“Very little,” Roth said. “The justices care about public opinion very inconsistently.”

He said there have been small changes at the Supreme Court when it comes to openness. For select cases, like the big opinion on gay marriage, the Court released audio later that day, rather than hold it until the end of the week. That wasn't the case for last year's big Affordable Care Act ruling, however, which did not have same-day audio.

Still, Roth says if same-day audio is allowed for certain cases, it's just a small step to making that the normal process, which he hopes will lead to livestreaming audio of certain cases and so on.

“I'm open to having some of those baby steps because they are better than nothing,” he said.

When the Supreme Court makes a big decision, the call for more audio (and video) access grows. This year, when the Court hears a case on President Barack Obama's executive orders on immigration and decides on an affirmative action case, Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin, Roth hopes the court will release same-day audio.

Releasing same-day audio of proceedings is not difficult. Roth said the Court even accidentally released same-day audio of the first proceeding of this year, rather than wait until the end of the week—the usual protocol.

“There's no technological barrier for them,” he said.

Adam Wisnieski is a contributing editor of The Crime Report. TCR plans to keep watching this issue. We look forward to hearing your comments and opinions.

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