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Comprehensive GAO Report on Appellate Court Media Policy Highlights Benefits of Ending SCOTUS's Broadcast Ban

The GAO’s wide-ranging report on audio and video access to state, federal and foreign appellate courts underscores the lack of such access at the U.S. Supreme Court and should be used a catalyst for greater congressional action toward opening up the high court to broadcast media, leading judicial transparency organization Fix the Court said today.

The report takes a comprehensive look at the audio and video policies of all 13 U.S. courts of appeal and all 50 state supreme courts and gives special attention to jurisdictions with the most open broadcast media policies: the Second and Ninth U.S. Circuit Courts of Appeals, the Supreme Courts of California and Florida and the courts of last resort in Australia, Canada and the U.K. The GAO also obtained information from transparency advocates and interviewed 16 judges and nine attorneys who practice in courtrooms that allow video.

“That countless appellate courts the world over have more permissive broadcast media policies than the U.S. Supreme Court speaks volumes,” said FTC executive director Gabe Roth, who in Feb. 2015 was the first advocate interviewed by the GAO for the report. “Nearly every appellate judge and attorney interviewed by GAO stated what pro-transparency advocates have understood for years – that ending the broadcast media ban at the U.S. Supreme Court would enhance public access to and understanding of the courts and offer countless educational opportunities to students of the law and practitioners looking to learn from the those at the pinnacle of their profession.”

More than merely pointing out deficiencies at the U.S. Supreme Court, that information about various court media policies is now contained in a single report will encourage court officials looking to update their own guidelines to seek out colleagues whose approach to media access seems right for them.

For example, the Florida Supreme Court does not permit any media outlet that wants to cover an argument to set up a camera and tripod in its courtroom. Rather, it partners with a local public television station that uses its own equipment to record and live-stream audio and video. The Ninth Circuit, on the other hand, operates its own cameras and streams video online on its own website and posts videos of hearings to YouTube. And the Supreme Court of Canada records video of arguments using its own equipment but also has an agreement with the Canadian Public Affairs Channel that allows it to televise and live-stream arguments.

Supreme Court staff interviewed for the study stated that the justices are right to “express caution” regarding changes in media policy that “could diminish the public’s respect for and create misconceptions about the court.”

“The fact remains that trust in the high court is at or near an all-time low, yet modernizing the institution and its media policies would go a long way toward regaining the public’s trust,” Roth added.

The report also includes pictures of some of the cameras installed in courtrooms across the country, and Fix the Court can report that those in the Ninth Circuit courtroom in San Francisco and in the California and Florida Supreme Courts are, in fact, as obtrusive as wall-mounted clocks, as transparency advocates are fond of saying.

Sen. Dick Durbin and Rep. Mike Quigley, both of Illinois, where Fix the Court is based, requested that the GAO write this report and both support bipartisan efforts to open up the Supreme Court to broadcast media.

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