Fix the Court calls attention to end of federal camera-in-courtroom experiment, appeals to Judicial Conference to take serious look at results
WASHINGTON, D.C. – Fix the Court – a national, nonpartisan organization that advocates for greater transparency and accountability at the U.S. Supreme Court – is calling attention to the July 18 conclusion of the four-year cameras-in-courts pilot program conducted by the federal judiciary and is appealing to the Judicial Conference of the U.S. to take a serious look at the results, with the hope that a positive review will yield a much-needed increase in openness in our nation’s federal courts system.
Authorized by the Judicial Conference in Sept. 2010 and begun on July 18, 2011, the pilot program comprised 14 different district courts across the country and was limited to civil proceedings in which all parties involved agreed to recording. With the program at its end, the research arm of the judicial branch, the Federal Judicial Center, will study the results and is expected to make its recommendations in a report to the Judicial Conference at its biannual session in March 2016.
Though the Supreme Court is under no obligation to take the views of the Judicial Conference of the FJC into account, transparency advocates are hopeful that the results of the pilot program may hold some sway.
“Since all nine justices at one point in their careers supported cameras in courtrooms or were at least neutral toward them, and with a bench full of social science enthusiasts, a third-party study on the potential benefits of cameras could go a long way towards convincing the high court to be more accepting of broadcast technology,” said Gabe Roth, executive director of Fix the Court. “Oral argument at the Supreme Court is one of the most impressive exercises in our democracy, and it’s a shame only a handful of people get to witness it, especially when the solution to opening up the proceedings to a wider audience is as obtrusive as a wall-mounted clock.”
The previous cameras-in-courts pilot program ended sourly for transparency advocates, as the Judicial Conference voted – in secret – in September 1994 to suspend the use of cameras in federal courts. A year and a half later, in March 1996, the conference changed its mind and allowed each circuit to make its own rules on audio, video and still photography.
Since then, the Second and Ninth Circuits have allowed video coverage of various proceedings, and nearly all of the 13 federal circuits post same-day audio of their hearings online. The Supreme Court, on the other hand, has allowed only same-day audio only a handful of times in its entire history, most recently for the April 28 same-sex marriage case, Obergefell v. Hodges, but notably not for the March 4 Affordable Care Act case, King v. Burwell.
During the cameras pilot program, some district judges jumped immediately into the court’s business as soon as the “record” button was pressed, while others made the point to mention that a hearing was being filmed.
“This proceeding will be video-recorded, and the video may be posted [online…], so please limit noise and side conversations and other disturbances,” said Chief Judge James Gritzner of the Southern District of Iowa at the start of a Mar. 2014 hearing on whether the local sheriff is required to hand over e-mails about a federal broadband program to a reporter.
The 14 federal district courts that voluntarily took part in the pilot program are the Middle District of Alabama, Northern District of California, Southern District of Florida, District of Guam, Northern District of Illinois, Southern District of Iowa, District of Kansas, District of Massachusetts, Eastern District of Missouri, District of Nebraska, Northern District of Ohio, Southern District of Ohio, Western District of Tennessee and Western District of Washington.
The public is able to view recordings of proceedings from these courts at http://tinyurl.com/FedPilotProgram.