Cameras in Court

February 05, 1994

Once upon a time a camera was a cumbersome tool. It was bulky, noisy and depended on bright lighting. Because cameras were unacceptably intrusive in court rooms, they generally were banned. But those exclusions make as much sense today as would a law setting horse-and-buggy speed limits on interstate highways.

Most states now permit cameras and recording equipment in court. Many permit live telecasting, enough to keep a cable TV network fully occupied. In Maryland, civil trials and appellate hearings are open to camera coverage, under strict rules. The Court of Appeals, which makes the rules in all state courts, was willing to permit photographing of criminal trials as well. It was overruled, however, by the legislature at the behest of trial lawyers.

The argument that photographic equipment would upset the decorum of a courtroom or would be a distraction to judges, juries, witnesses or attorneys is archaic. Cameras are quiet, unobtrusive and can use special film or tape that requires no artificial light. Some courtrooms, in fact, are equipped with cameras to record testimony, supplanting the old-fashioned court reporter. The Court of Appeals, whose hearings are far more sedate than the typical trial court, routinely permits cameras when permission is requested.

Would some lawyers grandstand for the cameras? Not in the court of a competent judge. Would some witnesses be intimidated or distracted by the camera lens? No more so, and probably a lot less, than they might be distracted by people watching the trial in the court room. Cameras can be set unobtrusively on the side of the room, where they would not be permitted to be moved during the proceedings.

A bill is making its way through the state Senate to permit photographing and recording of criminal trials. There is no sensible reason any longer to restrict cameras or tape recorders in court rooms. If the judges themselves -- most of them, at any rate -- don't object to their presence, why should the legislature? Ever since medieval England the courts have recognized the public's right to watch justice administered. These days that right can be exercised through the camera's eye.

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