Federal judiciary declines to extend cameras in courts program

The ability for the public to view the judicial branch in action took a step backward this week. After a four-year pilot program in which 14 federal trial courts voluntarily recorded and published civil proceedings online, the federal judiciary decided to not continue the program. The full report can be found here.

In recommending to maintain the current ban on cameras in federal district courts, the Committee of the Judicial Conference of the United States cited the affect of cameras on witnesses, low levels of interest, and high costs, according to The Washington Post.

Fix the Court, a national organization committed to court access and transparency, responded to the recent decision. Fix the Court’s executive director Gabe Roth said:

“This is a disappointing decision, as the benefits of video-recording federal trials are obvious to any one of hundreds of thousands of people across the country who watched the proceedings recorded during the pilot.”

Unlike federal trial courts, federal appellate courts have progressed in their openness. All 13 federal circuits record audio of court proceedings, and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second and Ninth Circuits permit video coverage.

The U.S. Supreme Court continues to remain resistant to public accountability, fighting efforts to open the nation’s highest court. The high court sustains a strict no camera or audio recording policy for members of the public. The Court itself records oral arguments, but the recordings are typically not published until the end of each week. The Court released same-day recording in April 2015 for the Obergefell v. Hodges same-sex marriage case. However, the Court did not publish same-day recordings for the Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt abortion case earlier in March.



Bill introduced to permit cameras in Supreme Court

A bi-partisan group of legislators stood in front the United States Supreme Court on Thursday to introduce the Eyes on the Court Act of 2015. The law would require the United States Supreme Court and other federal appeals courts to broadcast video coverage of court proceedings.

Efforts to open up the most secretive branch of government have failed in the past, but advocates of the bill cite the current mistrust in the Supreme Court and the bipartisan support as reasons why the Eyes on the Court Act could garner momentum.

Additionally, the bill boasts an option for closing proceedings if the broadcast would “violate the due process rights of a party to the proceeding or is otherwise not in the interests of justice.”

Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-New York), Rep. Gerald Connolly (D-Virginia), Rep. Mike Quigley (D-Illinois), and Rep. Ted Poe (R-Texas) back the bill.

“How is it possible that we can keep up with the Kardashians, but we cannot keep up with the Supreme Court?” Rep. Nadler asked at the press conference in front of the Supreme Court.

Gregg Leslie, legal defense director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, and Gabe Roth, executive director of Fix the Court, also attended the press conference. Leslie told the audience studies have shown that cameras do not affect oral argument participants.

The Second and Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals have already successfully implemented broadcasting oral arguments.


Stephen v. Stephen: Rookie Late Show host Stephen Colbert presses Justice Stephen Breyer on cameras in the Supreme Court

Stephen Colbert has seamlessly taken the baton from longtime host David Letterman in his first days on the Late Show. In the infancy of his late night comedy career, Colbert has transitioned from a charactercher on the The Daily Show to a more serious interviewer on the late night stage.

Colbert hosted a mix of expected guests in his first seven shows, including actor George Clooney, Republican presidential nominee Jeb Bush, Vice President Joe Biden, tennis star Novak Djokovic, and author Stephen King.

However, on Monday night, Colbert’s show focused on a more unorthodox guest on the late night stage—Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer.

As Breyer waltzed onto the Late Show stage, Colbert graciously told Breyer, “Thanks for being here. You’re really classing up the joint.”

The Harvard Law School graduate and 20-year Supreme Court veteran promoted his new book, The Court and the World: American Law and the New Global RealitiesThe book argues for a more international view of the law in the United States beyond our borders. Adam Liptak’s (@adamliptak) piece in The New York Times expounds on Breyer’s unique worldly point of view.

The highlight of Breyer’s appearance began at 3:13 of the below video when Colbert pressed Breyer about cameras and access to the highest court in the country. Unlike the highest courts in Canada, the United Kingdom, and Australia and many lower courts in the United States, the most influential court in America refuses to allow the public to peer inside of the hallowed halls and get a glimpse of democracy at work.

This is a fight I intend to pursue throughout my career because the American people deserve access to the judiciary. They deserve to see and hear their government at work, gather all the facts, and then have an informed debate about the critical issues that come before the Court.

In creating a wall between the public and the protective Justices, speech on the important issues argued in the Supreme Court is stifled and suppressed. This is not how the American judiciary should function. Access and transparency should always be the answer.

The dialogue regarding cameras in the Supreme Court occurs at 3:13 and a transcript of the back-and-forth is below.

Colbert: The Supreme Court is about the last place in America where I couldn’t bring my camera crew in to shoot what the government is doing, to get video of what the government is doing. Why can’t we watch you if the Supreme Court repeatedly rules that we can be watched by the government?

Breyer: And there are very good arguments in favor of what you are just saying.

Colbert: I just made one. I just made a very good one. If you had cameras in the courtroom, you could just put your book on the edge of your desk, and you wouldn’t have to be here right now shaking your lawmaker (laughter).

Breyer: Right there in what you just said you have given part of the answer. I’m in a job where we where black robes because in part we are speaking for the law. Everybody knows we are human being.

Colbert: In part to make you spooky (laughter).

Breyer: That’s a thought. But the country doesn’t want to know the Constitution according to Breyer or according to O’Connor. They want to know what the answer to this thing is. That’s true of the process. If you had cameras right there in the process of oral argument; if you had that, we don’t know what the reaction exactly would be among the lawyers. The oral argument is about five percent of the basis for deciding a case. It’s almost all in writing. And the toughest part about this question you posed is this: When I’m deciding a case, I’m deciding it for 315 million people who are not in that courtroom. The rule of law; the rule of interpretation; it applies to everybody. The human beings – correctly and decently – relate to people they see. And they’ll see two lawyers, and they’ll see two clients, and they’ll see two lawyers, and they’ll see two clients. Will they understand the whole story? Will they understand what we’re doing? Will there be distortion? Now, that’s the arguments against you. The argument for you is that it would be a fabulous educational process.

Colbert: And pretty entertaining sometimes too I’m guessing.

Breyer: Uh . . . no (laughter).

Colbert: I disagree. [End]


Hillary Clinton’s emails as secretary of state evade public scrutiny – for now

Last week media outlets, including The New York Times, revealed that former Secretary of State and likely once-again presidential candidate Hillary Clinton used a personal email address while at the State Department instead of a government address.

Emails transmitted through a government email address (.gov) are public records under the Freedom of Information Act and are used by Congress, historians, and the press for documentation and transparency. Clinton’s use of a private email address skirts this public oversight.

The New York Times article quoted Jason R. Baron, the former director of litigation at the National Archives and Records Administration:

It is very difficult to conceive of a scenario — short of nuclear winter — where an agency would be justified in allowing its cabinet-level head officer to solely use a private email communications channel for the conduct of government business.

The Associated Press and Gawker are considering legal action to retrieve Clinton’s emails. This clip from CNN’s Reliable Sources sheds more light on the topic: Will the public & press ever see Clinton’s emails?