This is a big step forward toward the public getting increased access to what transpires in court. —Jeff Hunt, attorney
SALT LAKE CITY — The Utah Judicial Council unanimously approved a proposed rule Monday that would allow for video cameras in the state's courtrooms.
"This is a big step forward toward the public getting increased access to what transpires in court," First Amendment attorney Jeff Hunt said. "This is a watershed moment in public access to the courts."
The recommendation to allow cameras from news outlets into public court proceedings came from a yearlong study conducted by a Judicial Council Study Committee on technology in the courtroom. Diane Abegglen, appellate court administrator, presented the committee's finding in a Judicial Council meeting Monday.
"On cameras in the courtroom, the vote was unanimous that media coverage would be allowed in all proceedings that are open to the public," she told the council.
The cameras will be allowed into courtrooms the same way still cameras are now — only with advance approval from the judge and with one pool photographer representing all media. Abegglen added that there are general rules that prohibit photographing jurors or minors, but overall, the decision was a huge stride.
"In terms of cameras, there are three tiers of access and Utah's been in the most restrictive," she said. "This moves us into the top tier of access. It's a move in a more positive direction."
Hunt said the primary concern from the judges was that the presence of cameras would change the way those in the courtroom acted. But data showed that cameras ultimately have little impact.
"The presumption is electronic media coverage is allowed unless the judge prohibits it or restricts it," Hunt said.
Utah Supreme Court Justice Jill Parrish clarified that a judge can exclude video cameras from court proceedings, but will have to justify the decision on the record.
"It will be appealable," Parrish said of the judges' decisions.
But while those on the council seemed to generally have no problem with cameras, the use of other electronic devices such as cellphones was more divisive for the committee and for the council.
"Electronic devices were controversial from the outset," Abegglen said. "There's a competing perspective of safety and decorum and what the public expects operating in a digital world."
A report from a subcommittee of the Board of District Court Judges recommended a complete ban on electronic devices in the state's courthouses. But the committee on technology in the courtroom tried to strike a balance by finding that these devices could be used in courthouses, but use in courtrooms is determined on a case-by-case basis.
"Individual judges have broad discretion on usage or prohibition in a courtroom," Abegglen said.
Third District Judge Paul Maughan explained that he felt the cameras built into cellphones pose a security issue.
"People are taking pictures of the court, the witnesses, the jury and a judge certainly can't be monitoring the audience," Maughan said. "Who looks at that?"
Third District Judge Randall Skanchy worked with the subcommittee on the use of electronic devices and said that it would be impossible for court bailiffs to try and monitor cellphones in addition to their other duties. The judges will have to set the terms of their use in their own courtrooms.
"The presumption is you can have them," Skanchy said. "(But) individual judges have more discretion."
Hunt said the proposed rule on electronic devices would make court policy "more uniform" across the state. It would also allow judges to consider their own rules for the sake of "security, safety and decorum."
The council did not have to vote on a third matter discussed by the committee — the issue of audio recordings in the state's justice courts — as the Legislature passed a bill requiring "verbatim audio recording of all justice court proceedings effective July 1, 2012," according to the committee report.
The council's vote to approve the committee's recommendations on cameras and electronic devices will now go to the policy and planning committee, which will write the rule. Abegglen said the rule will most likely be ready for the council's meeting in May.