Once Novel, Televised Trials Now Common In Most States

By: - December 3, 1999 12:00 am

In 1994, millions of TV viewers were enthralled by daily coverage of O.J. Simpson’s California murder trial. While some aspects of Simpson’s sensational case provided ammunition for opponents of courtroom cameras, 48 states let the news media use photographic equipment.

Television stations and newspapers routinely get permission to document civil and criminal proceedings in state courthouses, except for trials involving juveniles, trade secrets or domestic relations. And the news media are universally asked not to print or broadcast images of sex crime victims or of jury members.

The final decision on whether to allow media cameras rests with the judge overseeing the case. The judge also can limit what gets recorded within the courtroom.

Two states that quash all media bids for cameras are South Dakota and Mississippi. That also holds true of the federal court system, although some of its courtrooms experimented with cameras from 1991 to 1994.

“I can’t think of an occasion when I did not allow cameras in the courts upon request,” says Roger Warren, a California Superior Court judge from 1976 to 1996.

Courtroom cameras “inform the public about what goes on in the courts and in court proceedings,” says Warren, now president of the National Center for State Courts, a non-profit Williamsburg, Va., organization dedicated to improving the function of state courts.

South Dakota and Mississippi want their court systems free of photographic intrusion from the news media. They maintain blanket prohibitions against broadcasting trials, bans that appear unlikely to crumble any time soon.

South Dakota’s reservations stem from “philosophical concerns about cameras in the courtroom,” says Mike Buenger (pronounced Binger), administrator for South Dakota’s unified judicial system. State jurists want to ensure “that cameras don’t influence how witnesses, and the like, behave,” Buenger explains.

Mississippi’s aversion to trial photography is clearly outlined in its code of judicial conduct, according to Steve Kirchmayr, administrator Mississippi Supreme Court

“There’s a rule in there that a judge should prohibit broadcasting,” Kirchmayr says. The Magnolia State does let non-media cameras record court proceedings to make videotapes for educational institutions.

Among the 48 states friendly to media cameras, 36 have approved them in trial and appeals courts, while three states — Maine, Oregon and Pennsylvania — only allow cameras at the trial level, according to the Information Service of the National Center for State Courts. Pennsylvania goes a step further by restricting cameras to non-jury proceedings.

Nine states — Delaware, Idaho, Illinois, Indiana, Louisiana, Minnesota, Nebraska, New York and Utah — allow only appellate trials to be photographed.

Then there’s the question of if news media photographers can record criminal or civil cases, or both. Most states let cameras document criminal trials. But a handful have decreed that only civil trials may be displayed. They are Delaware, Maine, Maryland and Pennsylvania.

Colorado became the first state to allow news media photographers in 1956. A 21-year wait followed before Alabama came on board in 1976. The subsequent push into 46 more states, ending in 1996 with Tennessee, is due to efforts of people like retired lawyer Larry Scharff.

He served as general counsel to the Radio-Television News Directors Association (RTNDA) when news organizations were battling fiercely for the right to photograph in state courthouses.

“In most states, (camera) experiments had to take place before permanent rules were adopted,” Scharff says. “I would say that Florida was the most proactive, and has gone the furthest to date in permitting cameras at virtually all levels of state courts.”

The ability to televise state courtroom proceedings is of paramount importance, according to Amy Ridenour, president of the National Center for Public Policy Research, a conservative think tank in Washington, D.C.

“We have a lot of courtrooms making decisions on a lot of very critical issues,” Ridenour says. “Gun policy, abortion, the Internet. For Americans to see these policies being made, they need access to courtrooms. You can’t fly to Seattle every time there’s a big court decision out there.”

Detractors say the flip side of the argument took place during the Simpson trial, which attracted national — even international — attention.

“I think the O.J. trial caused many trial lawyers to become aware of the possible negative consequences of cameras in the courts,” says Roger Warren of the National Center for State Courts. “In the minds of some, the presence of cameras in the courts actually did begin to change, or modify, the behavior of people in court.”

The case prompted the Wall Street Journal to bemoan “the slow messy system that passes for justice in this country.” But it didn’t cause any state to back away from giving cameras courtroom access.

During an appearance on ABC-TV’s “Nightline,” South Carolina Judge William Howard revealed a simple yardstick for blocking or allowing media cameras. “Unless you can show me that cameras in court aid the defendant in getting a fair trial, they should be excluded,” said Howard.

He had cameras removed from his courtroom during the well-publicized trial of Susan Smith, convicted of drowning her children in her car.

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