The time is ripe to revisit the issue of cameras in the court in New York. The inner working of our justice system is a subject the public should have more access to and the advancement of technology and increased access to media mediums has given the public the means to be better informed.
Over the years, New York has allowed such coverage, but only for limited periods of time and in compliance with the requirements and safeguards of §218 of the Judiciary Law. The implementation of §218 in conjunction with the Rules from the Chief Judge, with additional legislative actions, should again allow for live coverage of court proceedings.
The last experimental period for implementing audio visual coverage came to an end on June 30, 1997 and has not been reinstated. Since that time, only occasional coverage has taken place.
In 1997, the New York Legislature established a committee to review audio-visual coverage of court proceedings. The comprehensive findings were published in a 1997 report entitled “An Open Court Room.” A majority of the committee supported the implementation and a minority opposed. The committee found that cameras in the court will strengthen the public’s knowledge of the vital work of the judicial system without interfering with the dignity or decorum of the courtroom.
On several occasions, Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman expressed the view that the debate over coverage should be renewed.
Although there is clearly a great social benefit in allowing audio-visual coverage of courtroom proceedings, the nature and social significance of the specific proceedings and the manner in which trials have been presented have influenced opinions against allowing the practice.
For example, the coverage and feedback from the trial of the People v. Simpson (California, 1995), demonstrated that such coverage may not be helpful and may actually impede the speed and fairness of a trial.
My personal experience with allowing cameras in the court was in April 1996 when I presided over the civil action in Bronx County of Cabey v. Goetz (New York, 1996), which involved a claim for personal injuries arising from a shooting on a New York City subway. This trial received enormous attention and coverage by both local and national media. With the consent of the attorneys and in compliance with court instruction, the case was covered live on Court TV. For eight days the public had the opportunity to watch live non-fiction trial coverage and view photos of the actual proceeding.
In People v. Zimmerman, (Florida 2013) a case that involved the shooting of a young man, was open to cameras and widely viewed, and it proved informative and educational in showing the true nature of courtroom proceedings. For four weeks, network television gave the public gavel-to-gavel coverage of the trial and it remains the topic of continuous discussion on television and social media. I do not believe that such coverage impeded the administration of justice. In fact, the coverage allowed our populace to witness first hand the administration of justice.
The subject of “Camera in the Court” falls under the Judiciary Law §218, Civil Rights Law §52 and Part 131 of the Rules of the Chief Judge, which set forth criteria for a judge to consider in deciding whether to allow live coverage. They are as follows: (1) the type of case involved; (2) whether such coverage would cause harm to any participant in the case or otherwise interfere with the fair administration of justice, the advancement of a fair trial or the rights of the parties; (3) whether any order directing the exclusion of witnesses from the courtroom prior to their testimony could be rendered substantially ineffective by allowing audio-visual coverage that could be viewed by such witnesses to the detriment of any party; (4) whether such coverage would interfere with any law enforcement activity; or (5) involve lewd or scandalous matters.
It is of the upmost importance that the public be able to view actual courtroom proceedings as they develop, but only within the rules and guidelines set up for each case to protect the rights of those brought into the court system. The law clearly instructs the court to take into consideration the views of the parties, witnesses, jurors and other participants. There is little doubt that the intent of the Legislature was for the law to be fair and impartial and to empower the presiding judge with exclusive jurisdiction and discretion as to implementation and control, while setting forth provisions that limit coverage under specific conditions.
Application should be made to the presiding judge to request permission to conduct audio/video coverage. Given the latitude as to the procedures for implementing §218 of the Judiciary Law, it is essential that the judge presiding control the courtroom and enforce any agreement as to manner of coverage. If any violations take place, the judge should have the power to admonish, make adjustments or prevent the coverage from continuing. I believe that the manner in which a judge conducts proceedings will allow for proper and orderly presentation of the legal proceedings.
The Rules of the Chief Judge §131.5 provide that an appeal of a judge’s decision may be made to the administrative judge. However, as a former administrative judge I believe that allowing the local administrative judge to be the final appeal may give rise to controversy. Clearly, the same interest and/or controversy surrounding the case will be present locally and a decision by a judge outside the local court will be accepted more easily by all concerned. I recommend that this provision be amended so that an appeal of the trial judge’s decision would go immediately to the presiding justice of the appellate court in the judicial district. In this way it will be reviewed by an independent judge outside the court in which the case is pending.
With these safeguards set forth by statute and implementation of the Rules of the Chief Judge to insure fairness, objectivity and limitations, I believe the time is right to institute cameras in the court. With constantly advancing technology and the proper controls and restrictions imposed by the court, it would be advantageous to the citizens of New York and others to allow for the recording of trials once again.