Court considers broadcasts

Proponents say public would benefit from cable, Web access to Court of Appeals


The state's highest court, eager to increase its visibility, is studying whether to broadcast its oral arguments online or through a cable outlet, something that would bring Maryland in line with appeals courts in 21 states that offer some recorded coverage.

The Maryland Court of Appeals, which already allows camera access, has a practical motive for looking at widespread broadcast: to make the proceedings more accessible to a public that might not be able to visit Annapolis or fit in the cramped courtroom.

But those who like the idea see other benefits, as well.

"It can do nothing but good for the public perception and realization of how difficult some of these issues are and what is being talked about," said John F. Fader II, a former Baltimore County Circuit Court judge and a senior judicial fellow at the University of Maryland law school.

Official broadcast of staid appellate court arguments is a far cry from live coverage in the state's criminal courts - something not on the horizon anytime soon in Maryland, despite recent attempts at legislation that would have authorized cameras in the lower courts.

And even supporters concede the Colonial-era trappings of the high court - the seven judges dressed in crimson robes, sitting on the court that was created in 1776 - probably wouldn't attract record viewership.

"Frankly, there is not going to be an American Idol-type of response to this," Fader said.

The idea remains in its early stages, said Sally W. Rankin, spokeswoman for Maryland's judiciary, who is exploring the idea of partnering with the University of Maryland journalism school to help provide a civics lesson to the greater public.

"It's a chance for those who want to learn more about how the courts operate and for citizens who want to know more about how democracy works," she said.

But Lawrence Fletcher-Hill, who argued before the high court about 10 times as the chief of litigation for the state attorney general's office, said he worries that broadcasting oral arguments could detract from the proceedings if lawyers take advantage of the cameras by attempting to communicate beyond the bench and to the public.

"The best oral arguments are an opportunity to address questions that the judges have and to do it in a very sensible and helpful way," said Fletcher-Hill, now a partner at the law firm of Gordon Feinblatt in Baltimore. "If the idea of broadcast gets in the way of the ability to communicate, then I think it could be harmful."

Nationwide, courts follow a wide range of guidelines when it comes to what kinds of legal proceedings can be broadcast and how.

The high courts in 21 states carry at least some of their proceedings online, according to the National Center for State Courts.

And 36 states allow some form of camera access in both trial and appellate courts, according to a 2001 study by the center.

In North Carolina, cameras have been allowed in criminal trials at the judge's discretion for about 20 years, said Dick Ellis, spokesman for North Carolina's administrative office of the courts. He said his office has received no complaints and that, generally, it has been a positive experience.

"The only trouble we've really had is out in the hall, people grabbing the family members, saying, `Can I interview you?' and putting a camera in their face," Ellis said, explaining that witnesses will usually be escorted by a bailiff if they don't want to be interviewed by the media.

In Florida, the Supreme Court has been broadcasting live all of its proceedings since 1997, said Craig Waters, the court's director of public information. The proceedings are broadcast by Florida State University and can be downloaded from the Internet or watched on the Florida Channel, the state's government channel.

At first, the court faced some criticism from people who feared that cameras might cause attorneys to "grandstand," Waters said. On the first day of broadcast, an attorney in the first case apparently was a little too nervous: After the chief judge announced that the proceedings would be broadcast live, the attorney fainted.

"We had the chief justice saying, `Is there a doctor in the house?'" Waters said. "We gave [the attorney] a soft drink and gave him a seat and let him resume arguments later in the day."

But these days, the robotic cameras in the courtroom don't cause a distraction. "They look like security cameras, and a lot of the attorneys don't really notice them," Waters said.

In Maryland, the Court of Appeals allows photographers and news cameras in the courtroom, but it has no arrangement for live broadcast or for complete arguments to be broadcast at a later time.

Rankin said the idea of broadcasting Court of Appeals arguments was driven largely by the desire to enable students to watch proceedings.

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