Journalists, attorneys oppose change restricting cameras in Utah courts

Published: Saturday, June 21 2014 3:00 p.m. MDT

Second District Judge David Hamilton speaks with attorneys during a court hearing in Farmington on Wednesday, June 18, 2014. A rule allows TV cameras to record proceedings in Utah's courtrooms and any restrictions have to be justified by judges. But a new change restricts cameras in family law cases and requires requestors to justify why they should be allowed to have cameras.

Laura Seitz, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — For more than a year, a team of judges, attorneys and court administrators worked to craft finely a rule that would allow — for the first time in Utah history — the use of electronic media and television cameras into the state's courtrooms.

Utahns were able to witness firsthand what goes on inside their courtrooms.

But it took just over a year for that presumptive openness to face added restrictions, which were voted in after being proposed at a single meeting of the Utah Judicial Council in April. The rule was changed to separate domestic relations cases, including divorces and guardianship hearings, from all other court cases and require those requesting to record such hearings to explain why they should be allowed to do so.

Previously, all court hearings were open unless a judge could justify barring electronic media coverage.

Court officials maintain it's a privacy matter. But family law attorney Eric Johnson, who has issued numerous requests to record the hearings, and media attorney David Reymann — who is working with the Utah Headliners Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists in opposing the change — argue the restriction was a hasty one made with Johnson in mind that will have negative ramifications.

"It's all about this one person," Reymann said. "When you change the rule to react to one specific situation, it's not good policy. … It's an overreaction to one incident."

Brent Johnson, general counsel for the Utah State Courts, said he has tried hard not to make the change about a single person, though he did say that the requests of a specific person "pointed out an issue" that contributed to the rule change.

"Mostly it's a burden shifting," he said. "It still allows recording in those proceedings, it just puts the burden on the person who wants to record. … In certain case types, the case files are private and they just decided that in all those case types where the case files are private, they're going to take away the presumption (of openness) in those cases just because of those heightened privacy concerns."

Reymann said the privacy of documents is irrelevant. Just because some court documents are private does not mean that cameras should be kept from hearings that are open to the public.

The initial rule recognized that there is no real difference between a camera and a reporter sitting in a courtroom, Reymann said. The rule change again tries to draw the distinction between cameras and reporters and undermines the benefits of public access to the courts.

"Allowing the public to directly observe what goes on, rather than get secondhand accounts from reporters increases their understanding of the judicial system, increases accountability and increases public confidence," Reymann said.

"It's particularly important for domestic cases, because members of the public are more likely to be involved in domestic law case than any other aspect of the judicial system in the course of their lives."

Eric Johnson said the goal of helping Utahns understand and observe what goes on in domestic relations hearings is the reason he started a YouTube channel called Utah Family Law TV and why he's made requests to record as many as 30 different hearings since January. He said he was allowed to record one, in Provo's 4th District Court.

"What people's expectation of the law and the operations of the courts are, are about 180 degrees different from the way the law and the courts actually work," Eric Johnson said. "And so the reason I established the channel and the reason I'm trying to cover the proceedings is because the news is in the proceedings — not the people or the participants."

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