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Courtroom cameras

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New York state’s top judge, Jonathan Lippman, has proposed opening courtrooms to cameras to improve public understanding of how the vital third branch of government works in dispensing justice.

Chief Judge Lippman, who presides at the Court of Appeals, cited technological advances in advocating that cameras be allowed in all court proceedings so those unable to attend a trial or sentencing can gain better insight into how their judicial system operates.

“To close our courtrooms to cameras in an age that we have today, with the technology we have with iPhones and the pads that you see everything in the world, and for the people in New York to not be able to see what happens in our courtrooms doesn’t make any sense,” he said in his State of the Judiciary message. “We have to educate people about the critical work that goes on in the courts. They have a right to know about it. They pay the taxes. And they can’t see it.”

Audiovisual coverage, he said, would “build stronger bridges between our courts and the communities they serve and gain the public’s trust.”

Cameras would open the judiciary to the same public access and scrutiny as other elected bodies, including local governments that allow proceedings to be broadcast to constituents who cannot always attend meetings. It would educate a public able to see how their laws are enforced in real-life proceedings.

Cameras were allowed in state courts on a 10-year experimental basis that ended in 1997; they are also barred from federal courts. Some New York judges allow them on a case-by-case basis, but Judge Lippman’s proposal would make it routine rather than an exception.

Opponents fear that camera coverage could be disruptive to courtroom decorum and have a chilling effect on witnesses fearful of public identification. Yet, witness identities are part of the public record already reported by the media without adverse effects on a defendant’s right to a fair trial. Most proposals for televised court proceedings also allow for restrictions to protect jurors and witnesses, particularly victims of sex crimes. Even under Judge Lippman’s proposal, the presiding judge could take steps to protect a witness’s identity.

Objecting prosecutors and defense attorneys quickly point to the sensationalism that surrounded the 1995 O.J. Simpson murder trial. However, as Judge Lippman said, “It’s time to move on.”

The Simpson trial was an exception. All 50 states allow camera coverage at some level. Judge Lippman’s opinion of courtroom cameras is shaped by experience. Arguments before the Court of Appeals are routinely broadcast. Several studies, including those in New York state, have concluded that cameras have not had an adverse effect on trials.

The proposal has to be approved now by the state Legislature. It is time lawmakers opened our courtrooms to make the judicial system more transparent.

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