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Despite opposition from some of its members, the Texas Judicial Council is recommending rules that would standardize the way courts deal with the issue of cameras in the courtroom. But the proposed rules, endorsed by the council on Dec. 14, would leave it up to individual judges whether to allow cameras inside courtrooms. “It’s still at the discretion of the judge,” says Texas Supreme Court Chief Justice Tom Phillips, chairman of the judicial council. The recommendation grew out of a study conducted at the Texas Legislature’s request. A resolution passed by state lawmakers in 1999 directed the judicial council to study the issue of pooling arrangements for electronic media coverage of trials. The council decided that it couldn’t do that without addressing the broader issue of cameras in the courtroom, says Osler McCarthy, spokesman for the Texas Supreme Court. McCarthy says the recommendations will go to the state supreme court’s rules advisory committee on rules and to the Legislature. While the supreme court has rule-making authority over the civil courts, the Legislature makes the rules for criminal courts. If the recommendations become a statewide rule, news media outlets would file written applications for electronic media coverage of a specific court proceeding. Such coverage would include live broadcasts from the courtroom, television or still photography cameras, and audio recordings of court proceedings. Coverage in general would be done through a pool system established and administered by the participating news outlets. Objections to the coverage would be considered by the presiding judge at a hearing. Before deciding, the judge would consider all relevant factors, including whether the coverage would harm any participants, interfere with the administration of justice, or disrupt the proceedings. The decision whether to grant a request to allow cameras would be announced in a court order, although the judge wouldn’t have to state the reasons for his decision. Phillips says a party in a civil case currently can block cameras from being in the courtroom by raising an objection. The proposed rule would shift control over the coverage in civil proceedings from the parties to the judge, he says. SOME OPPOSITION Paul Watler, a Dallas lawyer who frequently represents news media groups, sees the proposal as “an important first step” in opening Texas courtrooms to electronic media coverage. “I think it may result in at least incremental expansion of cameras in the courtrooms of Texas,” says Watler, a shareholder in Jenkens & Gilchrist. While the rules leave the decision up to the judge, Watler says certain factors are to be taken into consideration. “Those are legitimate factors and don’t deal with the content or the style of a particular news outlet,” he says. Watler says he’s hopeful that once the rules are implemented, people will see that cameras in the courtroom are a good idea and that the public’s interest is served without disruption. According to Watler, no complaints were heard about the cameras in Florida courtrooms that allowed Americans to watch the legal battle that unfolded as Gov. George W. Bush and Vice President Al Gore fought over uncounted ballots in that state. That was a “positive public service,” he says. The proposed rules were opposed by three members of the judicial council: John Cayce, chief justice of the 2nd Court of Appeals in Fort Worth; David Peeples, presiding judge of the 224th District Court in San Antonio; and Joseph Callier, a Houston lawyer with Callier and Garza. Peeples says allowing cameras inside courtrooms undermines confidence in the court system because TV stations broadcast only snippets of the testimony heard during a trial. Usually what is shown is the “most highly inflammatory testimony,” he says. “We’re granting the ability to show snippets that give people a misguided view of what a trial is about,” Peeples says. But Rep. Pete Gallego, D-Alpine, another member of the council, says officials are on “a very slippery slope” when they start saying that cameras shouldn’t be allowed because people will misunderstand what they see. Notes Gallego, “If people don’t understand what they see, that’s democracy… . The reality in a democratic system is, if people misunderstand, that’s their prerogative.”

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