July 2011:
Test Project on Video Coverage in District Courts

Washington Watch | July 2011
By Bruce Moyer

A three-year pilot project evaluating the effect of  video coverage of proceedings in federal district  courts and the public release of the digital  video recordings is being launched in July. The test project, first announced by the Judicial Conference last September, will involve the participation of 14 federal district courts and more than 100 federal judges, including judges who favor cameras in the courtroom and those who are skeptical of cameras.

The commencement of the project is likely to stall the progress of congressional legislation mandating televised coverage of federal court proceedings. In April, the Senate Judiciary Committee cleared legislation authored by Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) (S. 410) that would authorize federal district and appellate judges and the chief justice of the Supreme Court to permit the photographing, recording, broadcasting, and televising of court proceedings if such activities do not violate the due process rights of the parties involved in the proceeding.

The judiciary’s pilot project is limited in several respects. It is confined to only about 15 percent of all federal district courts and will extend only to civil proceedings—not criminal ones—in which the parties have consented to videotaping. The 14 district courts participating in the project all volunteered to take part and were selected by the Committee on Court Administration and Case Management of the Judicial Conference in consultation with the Federal Judicial Center, the judiciary’s research arm. The following courts are participating in the pilot project: Middle District of Alabama, Northern District of California, Southern District of Florida, District of Guam, Northern District of Illinois, Southern District of Iowa, District of Kansas, District of Massachusetts, Eastern District of Missouri, District of Nebraska, Northern District of Ohio, Southern District of Ohio, Western District of Tennessee, and Western District of Washington.

The Federal Judicial Center will conduct a study of the pilot and produce interim reports after the first and second year of the project. The Administrative Office of the United States Courts will provide funding for equipment and any training a participating court may need.

Courts that participate in the pilot will, if necessary, amend their local rules (providing adequate public notice and opportunity to comment) to provide an exception for judges participating in the pot project. Participation in the pilot will be at the trial judge’s discretion. In June, the Committee on Court Administration and Case Management issued the following guidelines for the project: 

  • Only proceedings of courts participating in the pilot project will be recorded. Recordings by other entities or persons will not be allowed. Recording of members of a jury will not be permitted, and parties in a trial must consent to participating in the pilot. 
  • No proceedings may be recorded without the approval of the presiding judge, and parties in the case must consent to the recording of each proceeding.
  • Video broadcasts will not be simulcast live but will be posted later to websites for the courts, at the discretion of the court. 
  • A judge can decide which cases are recorded; the court will have complete control of the cameras. 
  • Video recording of jurors, the jury voir dire, and sidebar conferences is prohibited. 
  • A judge can halt video coverage at any moment “for any reason considered necessary or appropriate” to protect the rights of the parties and witnesses and preserve the dignity of the court.
  • The recordings will not be simulcast but will be made available to the public as soon as possible. The recordings will be made publicly available on www.uscourts.gov and on local participating court Web sites at the court’s discretion. A judge can choose not to post the video for public view.
Because of issues involving personal privacy and the intrusion of publicity on the delicate administration of justice in criminal proceedings, electronic media coverage of criminal proceedings in federal courts has been expressly prohibited under Rule 53 of the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure since the criminal rules were first adopted in 1946. The Judicial Conference, the policy-making body of the federal judiciary, has banned the video recording of criminal proceedings since 1972.

In 1996, the Judicial Conference rescinded its prohibition of camera coverage for courts of appeals and allowed each appellate court discretion to permit broadcasting of oral arguments. Two courts of appeals—the Second and the Ninth—permit camera coverage. In the early 1990s, the Judicial Conference conducted a pilot program permitting electronic media coverage of civil proceedings in six district courts and two courts of appeals, resulting in relatively positive impressions. Concerns over cameras in the federal courts, nonetheless, have continued to hinder their introduction.
Bruce Moyer is government relations counsel for the FBA.
© 2011 Bruce Moyer. All rights reserved.


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