Judicial Conference Extends Pilot Project To Evaluate Cameras In The Federal District Courts

The Judicial Conference of the United States agreed to extend the current pilot project evaluating camera use in some civil cases in fourteen U.S. District Courts; While the extension indicates a later close to the project, it is hoped that the longer period of time will provide additional data for evaluating whether the current policies about cameras in the courtroom could be modified.

Whether and to what extent cameras should be permitted in federal court civil proceedings has been the object of study in the federal judiciary for over a decade. One key question in the development of a federal court cameras policy concerns the extent that the use of cameras may impact the presentation and consideration of evidence. At its fall meeting, the judicial conference decided, despite the pressures of tightening budgets, to continue the effort to understand the impact of cameras at the courthouse.

The Pilot Program

In September 2010, the Judicial Conference of the United States authorized a pilot project to permit a limited number of federal courts to use cameras during courtroom proceedings in certain civil cases. The objective was to assess the impact of cameras in federal trial courts for civil proceedings. Fourteen district court voluntarily decided to participate in the program. At the Judicial Conference meeting last week, the program was extended for one year. As noted in the announcement, the staggered extension is expected to improve the data available for the project's evaluation:

The Judicial Conference ... approved a one-year extension of its cameras-in-the-courtroom pilot project, to run through July 18. The 14 participating courts staggered their implementation so that only about half the districts will have taken part for three years at the time of the original pilot conclusion date (July 18, 2014). In addition, a one year extension will provide more data for evaluation of the pilot.

Pilot Project Approval

When the pilot project was approved in 2010, the Judicial Conference announced that the pilot would “evaluate the effect of cameras in federal district courtrooms and the public release of digital video recordings of some civil proceedings.” It was hoped that:

The pilot, which will be national in scope, will last up to three years. It will evaluate the effect of cameras in district court courtrooms, video recordings of proceedings, and publication of such video recordings. Details of the development and implementation of the pilot will be determined by the Conference’s Committee on Court Administration and Case Management (CACM).

Courts that participate in the pilot will, if necessary, amend their local rules (providing adequate public notice and opportunity to comment) to provide an exception for judges participating in the pilot project. Participation in the pilot will be at the trial judge’s discretion.

Under the pilot, participating courts will record proceedings. Recordings by other entities or persons will not be allowed. Recording of members of a jury will not be permitted, and parties in a trial must consent to participating in the pilot.

The Federal Judicial Center will conduct a study of the pilot, and produce interim reports at the end of its first and second years. The Administrative Office of the United States Courts will provide funding for equipment and training as needed by a participating court.

The pilot launched in the following fourteen districts: (1) Middle District of Alabama; (2) Northern District of California; (3) Southern District of Florida; (4) District of Guam; (5) Northern District of Illinois; (6) Southern District of Iowa; (7) District of Kansas; (8) District of Massachusetts; (9) Eastern District of Missouri; (10) District of Nebraska; (11) Northern District of Ohio; (12) Southern District of Ohio; (13) Western District of Tennessee; and (14) Western District of Washington. The Judicial Conference Committee on Court Administration and Case Management issued Pilot Program Guidelines for the participating District Courts.

The Judicial Conference consists of the Chief Justice of the United States, who presides over the forum, the chief judge of each court of appeals, one district judge from each circuit, and the Chief Judge of the Court of International Trade. See 28 U.S.C. § 331 (describing role and responsibilities of the Judicial Conference of the United States).

Prior Policy

Since 1996, the policy of the Judicial Conference of the United States has allowed each circuit council to determine the circumstances in which cameras, if any, may be permitted in their courts in civil cases and under what circumstances. See Report Of The Proceedings Of The Judicial Conference Of The United States, at 17 (March 12, 1996) (“The Judicial Conference agreed to authorize each court of appeals to decide for itself whether to permit the taking of photographs and radio and television coverage of appellate arguments, subject to any restrictions in statutes, national and local rules, and such guidelines as the Judicial Conference may adopt.”); see also Report Of The Proceedings Of The Judicial Conference Of The United States, at 17 (Sept. 15, 1996) (“In light of the Judicial Conference’s strong opposition to cameras in courtrooms, determined to oppose the judiciary’s federal courts improvement bill if it includes a provision authorizing presiding judges of district and appellate courts to permit media coverage of court proceedings.”). Cameras are prohibited in criminal proceedings under Fed. R. Crim. P. 53 (“Except as otherwise provided by a statute or these rules, the court must not permit the taking of photographs in the courtroom during judicial proceedings or the broadcasting of judicial proceedings from the courtroom.”).

For more information, visit the Cameras And Electronic Devices In The Federal Courtroom Resource Page, which contains a library of documents including judicial conference policies, judicial guidelines, legislation and hearings, cases and other articles of interest.

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