Judges give negative reviews to cameras in courts project

AP News
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Posted: Mar 15, 2016 6:49 PM

WASHINGTON (AP) — The federal judiciary said Tuesday it won't permit cameras in trial courts even though a majority of judges participating in a four-year pilot program said they would permit video recording of proceedings if it was allowed.

A committee of the Judicial Conference of the United States gave negative reviews to the pilot project that allowed some civil trials to be televised in 14 federal courts around the country. It recommends keeping in place the longtime ban on cameras in federal district courts.

A report found that 49 percent of participating judges favored televising proceedings, while 37 percent were opposed and 14 percent expressed no opinion. The number in favor went up slightly during the course of the pilot program, which began in July 2011 and ended on July 18, 2015.

But the committee pointed to other findings that said the presence of cameras in courtrooms often made witnesses more distracted or nervous.

"District court proceedings are already stressful situations for all of the participants," the report said. The committee said any change to the cameras policy "likely would increase that stress and affect in a negative manner witnesses' behavior in many instances."

Advocates of allowing cameras in courts called the report disappointing and said the Judicial Conference was standing in the way of greater transparency.

"The public, no matter where they live, saw their government officials in action, law students learned how federal trials are conducted and advocates learned how judges manage their courtrooms," said Gabe Roth, executive director of Fix the Court, which supports televised court proceedings.

The pilot program was limited to civil proceedings in which all parties agreed to be filmed. Recordings were posted on the federal judiciary's website where the public could watch for free.

While the committee acknowledged that pilot participants had positive reactions, it said the benefits were outweighed by major concerns. It found that 59 percent of judges reported that cameras distracted witnesses while 64 percent said cameras made witnesses "more nervous than they otherwise would be."

The report also found a "fairly low level of interest" in televising proceedings from both the parties and judges. Only 62 of the 198 judges in the pilot courts volunteered to take part in the pilot, while just 32 actually recorded at least one proceeding.

The pilot project cost nearly $1 million. The cost of expanding it to all 94 district courts is not justified considering the "negligible public interest in viewing the proceedings online and the significant impacts on the trial itself," the report said.

In 1996, the nation's appeals courts were allowed to decide for themselves whether to allow cameras during argument sessions. So far, only appeals courts in New York and San Francisco have permitted such coverage.

The Supreme Court also does not allow cameras, and several justices have said they oppose to the idea.