Cover Image

June

Previous Story | Next Story

Lawyers Journal

Balancing the interests of the public, press and clients

Currently underway in Quincy District Court is a pilot project involving cameras in the courtroom. Live streaming video of certain court sessions are available to anyone with access to the Internet. Those viewing the proceedings are also able to blog and comment about what is taking place.

To see this in operation, visit www.OpenCourt.us and click on the "Live Stream" window. Once at the site, I encourage you to watch the live session, consider reading the background information on the project and review the posted comments.

Several months ago, the Supreme Judicial Court sought comments to Rule 1.19 on access to court sessions. In response, I appointed a task force, which is chaired by Lee Gartenberg and Peter Elikann. At our House of Delegates meeting in March, our House approved a preliminary report from the task force which can be found at www.massbar.org/mediareport.

I am privileged to be on an SJC advisory committee as a representative of the bar as this pilot project on cameras in the courtroom moves forward.

The OpenCourt project was developed by WBUR-FM, Boston's NPR station. The program is funded through a grant from the Knight News Challenge, an initiative that provides funding to programs that promote innovation in how news is covered and delivered.

The concept of cameras in the courtroom raises a multitude of concerns. When you visit OpenCourt.us, you will see that restraining orders, if a standalone proceeding, are not being filmed. However, they currently will be filmed if a companion criminal matter is being heard. There is a system in place for the judge to turn off the camera for safety reasons, or the litigant or lawyer can request that the video feed be terminated for certain sessions given safety concerns.

Rule 1.19 does provide that certain proceedings should not be recorded, including motions to suppress or to dismiss or of probable cause or voir dire hearings. Further, the recording or close-up photographing or televising of bench conferences, conferences between counsel or conferences between counsel and client are not permitted.

However, these are the only proceedings explicitly stated under the rule to be held off-camera. Otherwise, a judge can only limit or temporarily suspend coverage if it appears that such coverage will create a substantial likelihood of harm to any person or other serious and harmful consequences. A party or person wishing to prevent the coverage must bring forward a motion to the court, and only after the hearing can the judge prevent coverage.

Under law, our courts are for the most part open to the public. However, these laws were set in a time when modern technological advances could not have been comprehended or imagined.

There are three interests to balance: the interest of the public to have an open and transparent courtroom; the interests of the press; and the interests of those who appear in the court, including litigants, witnesses and jurors, to name a few. Often during these hearings, sensitive personal information is shared. Perhaps it is the most intimate of information, such as mental health issues, substance abuse issues and issues regarding the most vulnerable of clients -- the children.

A person who is being arraigned and being filmed may in fact be not guilty, yet the filming of a person's arraignment will be on the Internet, and the presumption of innocent until proven guilty may be watered down as word spreads far and wide about the person's court appearance.

As a lawyer who has walked courtroom corridors for almost 30 years, I welcome such technological advancement and appreciate the necessity of an "open" courtroom; however, my concerns remain and are wide and varied.
My concerns include jeopardizing client safety and encouraging judicial profiling and witness intimidation, as well as the information finding its way to YouTube, Facebook, MySpace and other web sites and social media platforms. Some unintended results can occur, such as someone losing their job when his or her employer watches the allegations against the individual unfold in a hearing.

Other concerns surround cases involving victims of domestic violence and other more intimate and emotional cases that until now, were considered to take place in the sanctity of the courtroom. Now such emotionally-charged and deeply personal cases are offered up to anyone with Internet access.

For any of you who have an opinion on this topic, I would like to hear the positives and negatives from your perspective. Please e-mail me your thoughts on the subject to [e-mail camerasinthecourtroom].

©2014 Massachusetts Bar Association