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Online Access to Federal Court Trials

The merits of allowing cameras in federal courts has been debated for many years. In 1972, the Judicial Conference of the United States adopted a prohibition against cameras in the courtroom. From 1972 until 1990 the Code of Federal Conduct for United States Judges flatly mandated that a “judge should prohibit broadcasting, televising, recording, or taking photographs in the courtroom and areas immediately adjacent thereto during sessions of court or recesses.” This prohibition applied to both criminal and civil cases. However, over the years, the Judicial Conference has initiated electronic media coverage pilot programs and permitted electronic media coverage as pilot programs in civil proceedings in selected district and appellate courts.

Most recently, in 2010, the Judicial Conference authorized a three-year pilot project to evaluate the effect of cameras in district court courtrooms, of video recordings of proceedings, and of the publication of such video recordings. The pilot is limited to civil cases only and the presiding judge and involved parties must consent to the recording in each proceeding in a case. Fourteen courts, including the Northern District of Ohio, volunteered for the pilot program and were selected by the Judicial Conference Committee on Court Administration and Case Management in consultation with the Federal Judicial Center, which is studying the program. In this pilot program, the recordings are publicly available on www.uscourts.gov and on local participating court websites at the court’s discretion.

James McCarty of the Cleveland Plain Dealer has recently reported on the voluntary program and its impact on court proceedings here in the Northern District of Ohio. Currently, there are seven video-recorded trials from Ohio — five before U.S District Judge Donald Nugent in Cleveland and two before U.S. District Judge James Carr in Toledo. In Cleveland, McCarty reports, “all of the recorded sessions are held in a specially equipped courtroom on the 17th floor of the U.S. District Courthouse. A camera is hidden behind the rear wall, and a clerk chooses the camera’s subjects, alternating among the judge, witnesses, lawyers, and exhibits, depending on the trial activity. The judge also has a control knob.” For a trial to be recorded, the lawyers from both sides and the judge must all agree. Witnesses are allowed to opt out of being recorded.Jury selection is not recorded, and the day’s video is edited before being posted online.

McCarty also reports that Judge Nugent “acknowledged that the recordings do not offer the most entertaining courtroom drama. But the recordings have become popular with lawyers looking to brush up on their courtroom presence and for non-lawyers curious about how civil trials unfold in a federal courtroom.”