Get cameras into courts

Today is the start of Sunshine Week, a national effort to promote open government and freedom of information.

Access to our nation’s courts is an important part of open government. The public has a right to see that justice truly is being carried out.

One simple way New York state legislators could improve open government would be to support a proposal announced in February to allow audiovisual coverage at all state and local court proceedings.

The state’s top judge is leading the charge to open courtrooms to cameras. Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman, who presides at the Court of Appeals, where arguments routinely are broadcast online, called for the expanded access so people can better understand what’s going on in the courtrooms.

While some judges have been permitting still photographers on a limited case-by-case basis, Lippman noted access is cumbersome and requires judges to navigate an outdated law. That law was passed 60 years ago and prohibits audiovisual coverage of public proceedings where witnesses are subpoenaed or otherwise compelled to testify.

Attorneys do not unanimously agree on whether cameras should be in courtrooms.

While the New York State Bar Association Committee has recommended allowing cameras in courtrooms, the New York State Defenders Association opposes the idea. The association claims broadcasting the proceedings threatens the right to a fair trial because of adverse publicity.

We disagree. In 1987, the state authorized experimental programs in which judges could allow audiovisual coverage of proceedings. When the last program ended in 1997, the state refused to renew the access. The experimental programs showed no evidence that video cameras during trials caused any miscarriage of justice.

State lawmakers should follow the chief judge’s lead and embrace the placement of cameras – still and video -?in all courtrooms.

Lippman proposes some restrictions. The judge presiding over a case would have discretion to approve or forbid cameras. Witnesses who object could have their facial features obscured during broadcasts.

We are not fond of giving judges the discretion to limit cameras, but Lippman’s proposal at least would restore audiovisual coverage to a large degree.

Lippman said his proposal would allow the courts to assure the conduct of fair and dignified proceedings: “With this change, the prevailing standard will be: if you can see something as a spectator in the courtroom, you should be able to see it as a public viewer outside the courtroom. It is as simple as that.”

Our lawmakers should listen to the judge.