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In two cases that could have a broad impact on press access to the courts, a retired Superior Court judge in Alameda County, Calif., ruled Thursday that a television station can film in a courthouse lobby, but indicated that newspaper photos of minors can be restricted in juvenile court corridors. Attorneys for Oakland, Calif., television station KTVU and The Oakland Tribune tried to convince retired Judge Richard Hodge that reporters have a right to film and take photos in the courthouse hallways without permission. The county counsel, who represented two Alameda County judges, said that the media agencies violated Judicial Council photography rules. John Carne of Oakland’s Crosby, Heafey, Roach & May, who represented Alameda Newspaper Group, said that while the judge didn’t address exactly what’s permitted or not permitted, he made it clear a journalist can’t be found in contempt of court for shooting photos in courthouse hallways. Both cases revolve around a gray area in the court’s media policy, known as Rule 980. “If we break down 980 we can see the mischief that it entails,” Hodge said. According to the California Rules of Court, media can only photograph and broadcast court proceedings if they receive written permission from a judge. But the rule is silent about whether journalists need a judge’s order to take photos or broadcast in the hallways. Now, each courthouse in the Bay Area has different informal rules for photography or filming on court property. The KTVU and Tribune journalists could have been tossed in jail for contempt for violating court orders made by Hodge’s fellow judges. Last spring KTVU was working on a story about the Oakland police department’s efforts to seize vehicles of drivers suspected of trolling for prostitutes. Producer Roland DeWolk wanted to film a background shot of the file room in the lobby of the Wiley W. Manuel Courthouse, and a court clerk went to seek Judge Alan Hymer’s permission. DeWolk filmed it while the clerk was away, because he believed that he didn’t need permission to film a public area, according to court documents. In the meantime, Hymer denied the request because DeWolk didn’t ask permission earlier. Later, Hymer ordered a contempt hearing. Hodge, noting that it was a case of miscommunication between the court staff and the producer, struck down Hymer’s order. Rule 980 primarily deals with filming inside courtrooms and DeWolk shot pictures on a floor with no courtrooms, Hodge noted. “I think that it’s completely credible to suppose that he … can photograph … a background shot of the files,” Hodge said. “There was fertile ground for misunderstanding,” Hodge added. DeWolk’s attorney, Stephen Kaus of San Francisco’s Cooper White & Cooper, said Hymer probably felt the need to stand up for the clerk, who may have believed that DeWolk took advantage of her when she left to get the judge’s permission. But “a criminal charge is a blunt weapon,” said Kaus. DeWolk was gratified by Hodge’s ruling. “We will continue to protect the public’s right to know,” said the special reports producer. The county’s attorneys said that the press, which has enjoyed a flexible access to the court, might face more stringent rules in the future. The office plans to alert the Judicial Council that Rule 980 needs revision. “The result will be rules that won’t be satisfactory to” the court or the press, said Chief Assistant County Counsel Richard Karlsson. The second case, which Hodge heard Thursday afternoon, was more complex because it involved juveniles. According to court documents, Oakland Tribune reporter Donna Horowitz and photographer Sean Connelley were covering a July 13 dependency hearing that dealt with a mother and her two children. The hearing is tied to a federal case — where the children are mentioned by name — which alleges that the county probation department violated the constitutional rights of some family members. During the recess, Connelley snapped photos of the children in the hallways, with the mother’s permission. Juvenile Presiding Judge Brenda Harbin-Forte ordered a bailiff to seize the film and ordered the reporters not to publish the names of the children. Six days later Harbin-Forte ordered that the film be destroyed and that no Alameda Newspaper Group employee could take photos of people on juvenile court premises. She also ordered a contempt hearing. John Ketelsen, deputy county counsel, said in court that the press and the public have no expectation of access in a juvenile court proceeding, so a journalist certainly has no right to believe photos would be permitted.

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