Our View: Cameras provide access to justice

July 18, 2013 

In these rooms lives are changed. The guilt or innocence of people accused of heinous crimes is determined. Sentences are imposed that might put someone in prison for life or even on death row. Litigants use civil court to settle disputes over real estate, property and issues such as pollution and malpractice.

Courtrooms are where some of the most dramatic and important decisions are made under the jurisdiction of judges chosen and paid by the people.

Even though they serve the public, courtrooms operate in a secluded, sequestered world, especially in Stanislaus County. Our judges, who have discretion over whether to allow cameras in the courts, routinely deny requests for any kind of pictures to be taken inside the courtroom.

In 1966, California began allowing cameras in the courtrooms, first on a limited experimental basis and then, since 1995, on a much wider basis but always at the discretion of the judge presiding over the proceedings. In all cases, photographers and videographers cannot take photos of jurors and spectators.

State court rules list 18 factors that the judge must take into account when considering requests for access. Heavily weighted to keeping cameras out, these factors include the nature of the case, the effect on the ability to select an impartial jury, effect of coverage on witnesses' ability to testify, privacy of all participants in the proceeding, security and dignity of the court, undue financial burden to the court, interference with other courtrooms and any other factor the judge deems relevant.

The list also includes two factors that are easily overlooked: the importance of maintaining public trust and confidence in the judicial system and the importance of promoting public access to the judicial system. Many Americans never step inside a courtroom but nonetheless need to know how the justice system works.

The zenith of cameras in the courtroom — and the argument of many opponents — was the circuslike atmosphere of the O.J. Simpson trial. Not only did the participants play to the presence of live broadcasts, but players were presented in caricature — the "Dancing Itos" on "The Tonight Show" were a prime example. More recently, the high-profile trials of Casey Anthony and George Zimmerman were broadcast live to an increasingly voyeuristic TV community. These cases, however, are the exception.

Most criminal proceedings follow a predictable path from arraignment to preliminary hearing to trial to verdict. Most are completed quietly and respectfully. And, in the vast majority of cases, there is no request or need for a camera.

In those where a camera is requested, as in cases where there is intense public interest or important issues at stake, judges should show deference to the public by allowing cameras. The permission might include stipulations such as limits on noise or flash equipment.

Journalists document life, and photojournalists do so with images. Providing the public a chance to see for themselves those accused of crimes fulfills the courts' mission of promoting public access to and maintaining the public's trust in the judicial system.

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