Washington, D.C. – Fix the Court is disheartened by today’s announcement that the Judicial Conference of the U.S. will not be expanding the federal cameras-in-courts pilot program.
FTC executive director Gabe Roth said: “This is a disappointing decision, as the benefits of video-recording federal trials are obvious to any one of hundreds of thousands of people across the country who watched the proceedings recorded during the pilot. 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.”
“The Judicial Conference has long been an obstacle to greater transparency within the federal judiciary,” Roth added, “and it’s a shame the pro-transparency advocates will likely have to wait for a number of leadership changes before the body conforms to modern expectations of openness.”
That some the nation’s top federal judges are oblivious to the value of expanded media coverage is unfortunate given how, during their confirmation hearings, all eight sitting Supreme Court judges – seven of whom were federal judges at the time – indicated they could conceivably support ending the high court’s broadcast ban.
More information on the pilot program:
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 program officially ending on July 18, 2015 (though each jurisdiction was welcome to maintain its video-recording capabilities afterwards), the Federal Judicial Center studied the results and made its recommendations in a report to the Judicial Conference this week.
The previous cameras-in-courts pilot program also 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 couple dozen times in its entire history, most recently for the April 28, 2015, same-sex marriage case but notably not for the Mar. 2, 2016, abortion case.
Fix the Court reviewed a number of the videos from the pilot program and found a range of judicial responses to the proceeding being recorded, as 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.
At the circuit level, the most useful explanation we’ve seen came from Judge Gerard Lynch of the Second Circuit Court of Appeals at the beginning of an ACLU v. Clapper hearing on Sept. 2, 2016, that was broadcast live on C-SPAN (at 0:55), going one step further to explain the nature of an appellate hearing: “The procedure here is going to involve lawyers making arguments; they are likely to be interrupted and asked a lot of questions by the judges. That’s not because we’re rude. […] This is, to some degree, our time to ask questions to lawyers to clarify the points that they’re making and the implications of those points, to perhaps raise issues that haven’t been fully addressed [in the briefs].”
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 may view recordings of proceedings from these courts at http://tinyurl.com/FedPilotProgram.