Cameras in court, cheap entertainment or a way to achieve justice?

Are cameras in the courtroom, a cheap form of reality television, or a better way to achieve justice?

This is a subject that is near and dear to my heart, both as a lawyer and as a news reporter. 

It’s not hard to understand why some people would feel uncomfortable having news reporters, including but not limited to video cameras and audio recording devices, in a public court proceeding. Rarely is a lawsuit something that the parties to the lawsuit want to become public knowledge. 

Still, there are at least two very good reasons for cameras in the courtroom that open the courtrooms to greater public access: fostering 1) court accountability; and 2) public education. 

“An educated citizenry is a vital requisite for our survival as a free people.” (author unknown) 

“The requirement of access is particularly important, in two senses. First, law should be epistemically accessible: it should be a body of norms promulgated as public knowledge so that people can study it, internalize it, figure out what it requires of them, and use it as a framework for their plans and expectations and for settling their disputes with others.” (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy) 

And as Justice Brandeis so aptly stated: 

“Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants; electric light the most efficient policeman.” 

These are the reasons why, with rare exception, court proceedings are open to the public. A public that has access to court proceedings are better informed about the legal system and the laws it administers. Denying the public access to court proceedings inherently both breeds suspicion and distrust and sows the seeds of corruption. 

If we don’t make the proceedings of our courts open to public oversight and scrutiny, then they can quickly devolve into star chambers where judges, juries, and lawyers could and would run amok, where justice could and would be perverted and outright denied. We develop and use technology to improve access to every good thing. Greater, easier access to public court proceedings through technology is not and cannot be an exception. 

After balancing the litigants’ and other participants’ desire for privacy against public oversight and scrutiny, if we must on one side or the other, public oversight and scrutiny wins, as well it should. The right of the public to know what goes on in the halls of government is the foundation for First Amendment freedom of the press. Bar the courthouse doors to the press, and you bar the court house doors to the public. 

And in an age when court proceedings are increasingly taking place via remote videoconference (and consequently with less frequency in physical court houses where the people can personally enter the court rooms to observe public court proceedings), the public needs to work harder than ever to ensure public access to public court proceedings is preserved. When members of the public can be excluded from public court proceedings with the simple click of a mouse or stroke of a key, I know from personal experience that many judges can’t or don’t resist the temptation to shut everyone out. There are all kinds of excuses judges will proffer for this undemocratic, unconstitutional, and dangerous behavior, but none hold water. 

As with any technology, cameras in the courtroom can be used for good or ill. But fear of cameras being abused in the courtrooms is no reason to impose an absolute prohibition against cameras and their responsible, beneficial uses in the courtrooms. 

Some try to argue that the mere presence of a camera in a courtroom can make witnesses nervous and self-conscious, thus discouraging them from being candid and forthcoming. The argument is weak. We live in a society where everyone carries a camera with him/her. You can go anywhere without a camera pointed at you in a store, in a parking lot, at school, at work, etc. Indeed, you’d be hard-pressed to find a courtroom of record that does not have at least one hidden camera and microphone in them for security purposes, if for no other reason. While the merits of surveillance culture are debatable, the fact is we are more accustomed to the presence of cameras than we ever have been in history (and that will only deepen over time). Thus, to suggest that the mere presence of cameras recording proceedings in the courtroom would disrupt the proceedings, adversely affect the administration of justice, and generally do more harm than good is simply disingenuous. 

The public not only deserves to know how its courts function, it needs to know how its courts function, if it is to ensure that the courts function properly for the public good. 

To put it more bluntly (but no less sincerely), unobtrusive cameras in the courtroom help keep courtroom proceedings honest. They preserve, even increase, public oversight and scrutiny of court proceedings, which is, on balance, a net benefit to the administration of justice for the public at large. 

It is crucial that the public have access to court proceedings so that the courts are subject to public oversight and accountability. It’s a right. Besides, he or she who would close the courthouse doors to the public would squander opportunities to educate and inform the public about the law and how it is administered properly (and improperly). To close the courthouse doors to the public is to show disrespect and contempt for the public, which can only breed public contempt for and distrust of the courts. 

Utah Family Law, LC | | 801-466-9277  


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