The Ninth Circuit sent waves through the legal community earlier this year when Judge Vaughn Walker proposed broadcasting the Prop 8 trial. In January, the Supreme Court swept in and shot down that idea.
The right to an open and public trial is guaranteed by the Constitution, and understanding what’s going on in our courts is a crucial part of democratic self-governance. The standard for closing a courtroom to the public is very high, and justifiably so. We the People should be allowed to know — and to hear, and to see — what is transpiring within our courts. After all, these are our laws being interpreted, our rights being adjudicated, and our taxpayer dollars at work.
And in this age of videoconferencing, YouTube, blogging, and Twitter, the distinction between physical and virtual attendance of court proceedings is becoming increasingly artificial.
Kozinski is a fierce advocate of cameras in the courtroom. On Monday, he stopped by Fordham Law School to talk about why courts need to admit cameras (before Congress forces cameras on them). Beyond the public’s “right to know,” he focused on the fact that cameras are impartial observers that are becoming increasingly necessary as the media devolves into a bunch of highly-subjective blogger-types…
Kozinski started his talk by going over some of the arguments he has made before [PDF] in support of cameras (e.g., studies show cameras don’t affect the proceedings, quoting his “old boss” Warren Burger — “People in an open society do not demand infallibility from their institutions, but it is difficult for them to accept what they are prohibited from observing.”).
It wouldn’t be like the O.J. trial, which decidedly set the cameras-in-the-courtroom movement back. Kozinski advocates stationary cameras that would not zoom in, zoom out, or otherwise overly dramatize the courtroom events. Kozinski acknowledged that if you were to choose between a O.J. media circus or reports from informed journalists like Nina Totenberg or Linda Greenhouse, one might be happy to live without cameras.
But that’s not usually the choice one has. Kozinski pointed to the “long, slow decline of the newspaper industry” and the “rise of a much more diffuse style of coverage” as a major reason why cameras should be brought into courtrooms. Increasingly, the public is relying on “pseudo-journalists” (aka bloggers) for their instantaneous legal news.
“On the Internet, the loudest voice gets the most attention,” said Kozinski, who said that tends to lead to a distortion of the coverage of a case. He also raised the risks of relying on unknown bloggers, pointing to the case of “Dr. Flea.”
Though Kozinski declined to address the issues of cameras in the Supreme Court — “I don’t want to complicate my own argument,” he said, when the question was inevitably asked during Q&A — a recent experience points to one reason why cameras might be a good thing at One First Street. The DC Dicta blog tore the Supremes a new one for their lack of tech savvy during the sexty City of Ontario v. Quon oral argument. Chief Justice John Roberts got unfairly ripped for asking about the difference between “a pager and an email.” The quote was presented out of context on the DC Dicta blog and then magnified as the blogosphere linked to that post over and over again as evidence of the Chief’s idiocy.
Had video of this been on YouTube, it would have been immediately clear that Chief Roberts is not a complete tech-idiot and that he was asking a more complicated and valid question about the difference in the city police department’s policies for the two.
“The days of obscurity for judges and reliable, informed journalists are gone and gone forever,” said Kozinski. “If courts don’t change with the times, change will be forced upon them.”