Federal courts need to try again on cameras

This column was written by a retired editorial writer for The Des Moines Register and longtime official of the Iowa Freedom of Information Council.

By Rox Laird

After a half century of refusing to allow cameras in their courtrooms, federal judges in in 2011 decided to give it a try.

Judges in 14 districts — including the Southern District of Iowa — volunteered to participate in a pilot project to record civil trials for public viewing.

Although a worthy venture, and is still supported by many trial judges, it did not go well. Just 158 judicial proceedings were recorded over four years, and those attracted few viewers. Thus, a committee of federal judges pulled the plug on the project with a little-noticed statement last week.

The timing was particularly ironic, coming during Sunshine Week, when public attention is focused on the need for open government in a democracy.

The federal courts are in many respects the least understood of any branch of government, and opening court proceedings to cameras would have an enormous public benefit.

So, while the federal judges stumbled out of the gate, they should not be so quick to give up. They should do some introspection on why their experiment failed, and then look to courts that have successfully accommodated cameras. They could do no better than look to Iowa, where cameras have been allowed in state courts for 37 years.

In its report last week, the Committee on Administration and Case Management cited several reasons for ending the federal cameras experiment. Chief among them was the cost (nearly $1 million across the 14 participating districts), but the committee also cited sparse participation, low viewership and some anecdotal examples of trial participants being distracted by the cameras.

Whether any of those are valid reasons for ending the experiment, it’s easy to see how it went wrong.

For starters, only civil trials were recorded, meaning many interesting cases involving criminal prosecutions were excluded. And, either party could unilaterally veto the recording of their trial.

Then, the optics were all wrong. Rather than allow news media to record trials, the courtrooms were equipped with fixed cameras trained generally on the judge, lawyers and witnesses. Then, the video recordings were uploaded on the courts’ websites, where the public could sit through hours of court proceedings without narration, explanation or context.

It is no wonder that few people outside of those with a special interest in a case clicked on the video. And, unless local news media happened to cover the proceedings, the public had virtually no way of knowing the recordings existed online. Nor is it surprising that television news stations were reluctant to download hours of bland, unedited courtroom video.

All of which reveals the federal judges’ misunderstanding of how the news media work. A gavel-to-gavel recording of a court hearing might be fine for a law school classroom, but not a newsroom. Videographers working on deadline must focus on key testimony or statements from judges and attorneys. Reporters often shoot video on their smartphones while taking notes and updating stories online.

This how it works in Iowa’s state courts where news media have been allowed to use cameras and other recording devices in covering both civil and criminal courts for nearly four decades. And it is widely supported by judges, lawyers and news organizations. Just two years ago, the Iowa Supreme Court updated the types of recording devices that may be used in Iowa courtrooms.

Had the federal courts followed Iowa’s example — or the examples in most other states — the cost could have been dramatically reduced if not eliminated because in Iowa the work is done by the news media.

Instead of drawing the curtains closed again, the appellate judges who set policy for the federal courts should give the public another chance to see their federal courts in action.