Our world seems to have surrendered to photo-documentation of nearly every second of every day. People walk around with cameras in their pockets ready to record at any moment. Our camera-happy culture has gone so far as to raise the question: Is any experience real if you did not take a photo?

In the courtroom, however, cameras are a contentious topic. On one hand, freedom of information seems to demand that video recordings of court proceedings be permitted and made available to the public. On the other hand, many judicial legislators fear that cameras in the courtroom could intimidate witnesses and violate necessary privacies. Some even feel that cameras in the courtroom make a mockery of the judicial system and perpetuate false information. So are cameras allowed in the courtroom, and, if so, when?

State Courts

In 1981, the U.S. Supreme court held that states may adopt their own rules regarding cameras in their courts, and the resulting policies they’ve implemented vary widely. In some states, visual and audio recordings are permitted in all public court proceedings, while in others, video coverage is only permitted in appellate courts.

Prior to 1996, Indiana was one of three states that prohibited the use of cameras in all court proceedings. In 1996, the Indiana Supreme Court implemented a program to study the use of cameras in the courtroom. The Indiana Court of Appeals participated in this program and allowed media coverage of oral arguments held before the three-judge panels. Now, the media may cover Supreme Court arguments pending acceptance of a formal request to the judicial panel hearing the case. At the trial court level, cameras and recorders are prohibited during all proceedings. However, the Supreme Court can give special permission for video-coverage if it is deemed necessary.

Federal Courts

In general, cameras are not permitted in federal court trials, although audio recordings of the week’s oral arguments are typically released. Over the years, there have been several legislative efforts to allow cameras in federal trial and appellate courts, but none have ever passed. In 2010, the Judicial Conference implemented a three-year pilot project to study the effects of camera usage in courtrooms. The program began in 2011 and lasted until 2015, with fourteen participating courts. It was limited to civil cases with the consent of presiding judges and participating parties. The recordings were made public on the U.S. Courts website. At the end of the program, the Committee on Court Administration and Casement Management decided not to recommend any changes to the Conference policy. The participating  districts were permitted to continue with the study to gather longer-term data.

The current policy for camera usage in the federal trial courts is sustained. According to the U.S. Courts website:

“A judge may authorize broadcasting, televising, recording, or taking photographs in the courtroom and in adjacent areas during investitive, naturalization, or other ceremonial proceedings. A judge may authorize such activities in the courtroom or adjacent areas during other proceedings, or recesses between such other proceedings, only:

  1. for the presentation of evidence;
  2.  for the perpetuation of the record of the proceedings; 
  3. for security purposes; 
  4. for other purposes of judicial administration;
  5. for the photographing, recording, or broadcasting of appellate arguments; or 
  6. in accordance with pilot programs approved by the Judicial Conference.

When broadcasting, televising, recording, or photographing in the courtroom or adjacent areas is permitted, a judge should ensure that it is done in a manner that will:

  1. be consistent with the rights of the parties, 
  2. not unduly distract participants in the proceeding, and
  3. not otherwise interfere with the administration of justice.”

As study on the effects of camera usage in court proceedings continues, these policies may change. However, as of right now, camera usage is limited. As our world becomes increasingly photo-documented, the courtroom remains removed from this cultural shift.

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