Federal Courts' Camera Experiment Rolls On

After a slow start, the latest experiment of video cameras in federal courtrooms, announced last October, appears to be finally starting to roll.

The first recording of a proceeding recorded under the experiment, a preliminary injunction hearing in Gauck v. Karamian, Civil No. 11-2346 (W.D. Tenn. filed May 4, 2011), was posted in July. Since then, four of the fourteen federal trial courts authorized  to record civil proceedings under the experiment have posted recordings of six cases online.

Besides the Gauck case – in which a television news reporter sued a racy web site for misappropriation over its alleged use of her name, and eventually settled after the preliminary injunction was denied – the recorded proceedings include the following:

  • jury selection and the trial in a contract dispute, Parma Community General Hospital v. Premier Anesthesia of Parma, Civil No. 09-00325 (N.D. Ohio filed Feb. 9, 2009);
  • trial in a personal injury case, Morton v. Fort Madison Community Hospital, Civil No. 09-00179 (S.D. Iowa filed Dec. 17, 2009);
  • a hearing in an effort by a convicted felon to have his life sentance vacated, claiming ineffective assistance of counsel in his trial on gun charges stemming from a 1997 armored truck robbery, United States v. Andrew L. Thomas, Civil No. 03-2416 (W.D. Tenn. filed June 2, 2003);
  • trial in a trademark/unfair competition dispute, Groeneveld Transport Efficiency, Inc. v. Lubecore International, Inc., Civil No. 10-702 (N.D. Ohio filed Apr. 2, 2010); and
  • a hearing on a stipulated order in a long-running suit over drinking water quality in Guam, United States v. Guam Waterworks Auth., Civil No. 02-00035 (D. Guam filed Dec. 20, 2002).

These cases are from only four of the fourteen courts approved for participation in the courtroom camera experiment. So, what about the other courts? Here is the status of the cameras experiment in the ten federal district courts in the program in which no trial proceedings have been recorded and posted online:

  • Middle District of Alabama: The court issued a notice seeking comment on a proposed amendment to  Local Rule 83.4, which bans cameras from courts within the district, to allow a limited exception for the experiment. The submission by the Radio Television Digital News Association in response to this notice is available here.
  • Northern District of California: On Sept. 1, 2011, the court adopted General Order 65, implementing the Judicial Conference guidelines for the experiment. The court has also created a page on its website explaining the program. The court's involvement in the cameras experiment comes as it continues to be roiled by the controversy over broadcast of the trial of a suit challenging the constitutionality of anti-gay marriage Proposition 8. See Hollingworth v. Perry, 130 S. Ct. 705, 175 L.Ed.2d 657 (2010); see also Perry v. Schwarzenegger, NO. C 09-02292 JW, 2011 WL 4527349 (N.D. Cal. Sept. 19, 2011) (ordering release of trial recordings), stayed, Perry v. Brown, No. 11-17255 (9th Cir. Sept. 26, 2011).
  • Southern District of Florida: Among the numerous changes in the court's local rules proposed in Admin. Order 2011-82 (S.D. Fla. Sept. 28, 2011) is an addition to the court's Local Rule 77.1 (which limits cameras to ceremonial proceedings) to allow for the camera experiment. The court is currently accepting public comment on the changes, and will hold a hearing Nov. 17. The proposed changes to Rule 77.1 are slated to go into effect on Dec. 1, 2011.
  • Northern District of Illinois: Local Rule 83.1(c) (available via this link) completely bans cameras from all court proceedings. Aside from a slight modification adopted in June 2011 to add the 8th floor and remove the 9th of the Chicago courthouse from this restriction, see Gen'l Order 11-0011 (N.D. Ill. June 8, 2011), there is apparently no current proposal to change the rule to accommodate the cameras experiment.
  • District of Kansas: On Oct. 14, the court issued a press release announcing the judges participating in the experiment. Local Rule 83.2.1, which generally bars cameras from all but ceremonial proceedings, also exempts "official court records" and "employees who work in the courthouse," which probably would allow for the federal experiment, which requires cameras to be operated by court personnel.
  • District of Massachusetts: The court issued a public notice and District Court Chief Judge Mark L. Wolf held a press conference Oct. 6, announcing that the court's participation in the program would begin Oct. 17. Local Rule 83.3 was modified and new Local Rule 83.3.2 was adopted to allow for the experiment. In 2009, a judge of this court appoved the video webcasting of a music downloading trial, but was reversed on appeal. See In re Sony BMG Music Entertainment, 564 F.3d 1 (1st Cir. 2009) (reversing trial court order allowing webcast), cert. denied, Tenenbaum v. Sony BMG Music Entertainment, 130 S.Ct. 126, 175 L.Ed.2d 234 (2009).
  • Eastern District of Missouri: The court amended Local Rule 13.02 on June 24, 2011 (approved by the Eighth Circuit Judicial Council on July 6, 2011) to allow for the new camera experiment. The amendment adopted the U.S. Judicial Council guidelines for the test, which the court posted on its website.
  • District of Nebraska: While the experiment was slated to officially begin July 18, in early July the court was waiting for the camera equipment to be delivered and installed. Chief District Judge Joseph F. Bataillon was enthusiastic about the program, pointing out to the Lincoln Journal Star that the court had been among the first to offer electronic document filing and audio digital recordings. "This is just the next step," he told the newspaper.
  • Southern District of Ohio: Three of the eight district judges within the district volunteered for the federal cameras experiment. One of the three, District Judge Gregory L. Frost, told The Columbus Dispatch that he was ambivalent about the program. "I don't have a dog in the fight," he said. "I don't care one way or the other if we use cameras." On June 24 the court released a revised Local Rule 83.2 to allow for the experiment.
  • Western District of Washington: In anticipation of the experiment, on Nov. 18, 2010, the court adopted a revised Local General Rule 4, prohibiting cameras "except as authorized by the Judicial Council of the United States or the Judicial Council of the Ninth Circuit." See Gen'l Order 10-06 (W.D. Wash. Nov. 10, 2010).
The experimental program is the newest chapter in the long saga of the issue of camera coverage of federal trial courts, and is the second such test in the federal courts (the first occurring in the early 1990s).

The experiment will continue for up to three years, with the Federal Judicial Center producing interim reports at the end of its first and second years and a final study of the program at its conclusion.

Even after all the courts in the experiment are revved up, the experiment's limitations will mean that the number of cases that are recorded and posted will probably be few. Then, only time will tell if this experiment finally leads to federal courts being open to regular camera coverage, or if it will be just another short period of openness before cameras are once again left outside the courtroom doors.

Eric P. Robinson is the deputy director of the Donald W. Reynolds Center for Courts and Media at the University of Nevada, Reno. He previously worked at the Media Law Resource Center and the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press. In addition to his posts here, Eric also blogs at www.bloglawonline.com.

(Photo of historic Tombstone Courthouse in Tombstone, Arizona, courtesy of Flickr user Crunchy Footsteps under CC BY 2.0 license.)


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