Courtroom Cameras Coming to Western Federal Courts

By Tanya Roth, Esq. on January 05, 2010 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

Knowledge is power. But knowledge can also affect the balance of power, and the delicate balance in a courtroom may be in play when cameras enter federal trial courts starting as early as this month. Announced recently by Chief Judge Alex Kozinski, the 9th Circuit has approved a pilot program to place cameras in the federal trial courts in the nine western states within the circuit's jurisdiction.

As anyone breathing during the O.J. Simpson trial will remember, cameras are allowed in courtrooms in the state court system in both civil and criminal cases at the judge's discretion. But cameras at the federal level are a newer development and still fairly rare. Only two Federal Appeals Courts allow cameras, the 9th Circuit based in San Francisco, and the 2nd Circuit, based in New York. 

For now, not every federal trial will be filmed. Only civil, non-jury trials will be up for consideration, and the chief judge of each district court, in consultation with Judge Kozinski, will have the option to permit or decline cameras on cases in his or her courtroom. It is not clear at this point whether the consent of both parties will be required. 9th Circuit spokesman David Madden said there is currently no rule requiring the parties' consent. "This will be an evolutionary process."

This new development may especially interest the people of California. In January, U.S. District Court Judge Vaughn Walker is scheduled to begin hearing the federal challenge to California's ban on same sex marriage, Proposition 8. In September, Judge Walker asked attorneys for both parties about their opinions on filming the proceedings.

Despite being the winners at the ballot box, only the attorneys for proponents of Prop. 8 had concerns. Charles Cooper, a lawyer for the sponsors of Proposition 8 wrote in a letter to the judge, "Given the highly contentious and politicized nature of Proposition 8 and the issue of same-sex marriage in general, the possibility of compromised safety, witness intimidation and/or harassment of trial participants is very real." The challengers to the ban had no objection to the cameras.

Despite the objections to filming, it is still possible that cameras will be allowed. As Berkeley, Calif., defense lawyer Cris Arguedas, who sits on the state's Bench Bar Media Committee, pointed out, "it's an extremely important issue to the public, and I think it's right to have it be available in this way."

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