Lawyers who argue before the District of Columbia Court of Appeals should get ready for their close-up.
Within the next six months, the court plans to roll out video streaming of arguments, Chief Judge Eric Washington has confirmed. The city’s highest court has offered audio streaming through its website since 2006, but the new service would make it one of only ten top state appellate courts to offer both, according to data from the National Center for State Courts.
Unlike the U.S. Supreme Court, which has long pushed back against calls to televise or provide video of arguments, live video or audio access has proved less controversial in state appellate courts. But the idea has raised similar concerns — so far unfounded, according to some court-watchers — about whether cameras would affect what judges and lawyers say and do.
Washington said in an email that the court was “encouraged” by the popularity of its audio streaming service and expected a similar positive reception to video streaming by the public and lawyers. The appeals court, unlike the city’s trial court, is an area “where we are confident that justice will not be compromised” by cameras, he said. A number of states have allowed cameras in their trial courts, but judges have expressed concern about video endangering the privacy or safety of witnesses (jurors aren’t allowed to be included in broadcasts of trials).
“I give the chief judge a lot of credit for being creative and experimental,” said George Washington University Law School professor Peter Meyers, who handles court-appointed appellate cases. “It’s certainly on the forefront of these innovative things to make the court more accessible.”
Deborah Saunders, a senior analyst with the National Center for State Courts, said that of the 53 courts of last resort in the U.S., which include the District and separate criminal appeals courts in Oklahoma and Texas, 40 provide public access to arguments via video, audio or both. “It’s definitely growing, but it’s not rapid,” she said, noting that, on average, one or two state courts of last resort each year add video or audio access.
Details of the project in D.C. are still sketchy — Washington said the court is in the early stages of testing equipment and, in the meantime, is weighing whether to post recorded video of some arguments after the fact. He did not say what the project might cost, but noted that the court didn’t have the resources to broadcast arguments through a public-access television station, as is done in some courts.
The court has an obligation to help the public understand its function, Washington said. Cameras, he said, are “a logical next step in the Court of Appeals’ efforts to reach the aspirational goals set forth in the court’s vision statement.”
For state appellate courts considering cameras, Saunders said, budget concerns are often the deciding factor, as opposed to concerns about privacy or witness intimidation that can come up in debates over cameras in trial courts.
District of Columbia Superior Court Judge Lee Satterfield declined to comment, but court spokeswoman Leah Gurowitz confirmed that the city’s trial court has no plans to introduce cameras. The federal court system is in the middle of a three-year pilot program to offer video, but the D.C. court isn’t part of it.
Washington said that he first discussed the possibility of video streaming several years ago with the late John Payton, a former lawyer for the D.C. government who was president and director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund. “He and I were both of the opinion that the public’s trust and confidence in the courts would be greatly enhanced by providing the public with an opportunity to watch how the court grapples with the very difficult legal issues that are brought before it,” Washington said.
Video streaming, as is the case with audio streaming, would broadcast arguments in the main and ceremonial courtrooms. Three-judge appellate panels typically hear arguments in at least a half-dozen cases each week in the main courtroom, while a full sitting of the court hears arguments less regularly in the ceremonial courtroom.
Representatives of the U.S. attorney’s office and the D.C. Public Defender Service — two of the most common parties to appear before the D.C. appeals court — declined to comment about the prospect of video streaming. In an email, a spokesman for the U.S. attorney’s office, William Miller, said audio streaming has been “an excellent way to provide broader public access to the court proceedings,” noting that local prosecutors use the service to listen to hearings.
Meyers said that, although the appeals court doesn’t tend to draw much public attention, video streaming would be valuable for lawyers and others interested in specific proceedings, such as family members of defendants whose cases are on appeal. While the court already has audio streaming, he said, seeing the lawyers and judges can have a different effect than just listening in.
Saunders said there’s always a concern about lawyers “playing to the cameras,” but so far state supreme courts with video haven’t found it to be a major problem.
Washington solo practitioner Robert Becker, who has argued before the court for two decades and pushed for cameras in courts in the past with the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, said knowing that videos of arguments are online wouldn’t affect how he handles cases. But he added that it might keep some lawyers on their toes. “I don’t think there’s any downside — except to the extent a lawyer is unprepared,” he said.
Contact Zoe Tillman at firstname.lastname@example.org.