Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman, who presides at the Court of Appeals where arguments are routinely broadcast online, is calling for a change in state law so people understand how laws are being interpreted, rights determined, criminals punished and tax dollars spent for the courts and legal system.
"To close our courtrooms to cameras in an age that we have today, with the technology we have with the 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," Lippman said. "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 yet they can't see it."
New York lawmakers 25 years ago approved camera coverage of court proceedings on an experimental basis but the experiment ended 10 years later when the Legislature didn't vote to continue it.
While some judges have permitted still photographers and video cameras on a limited case-by-case basis, Lippman said access is cumbersome and requires judges to navigate an outdated law. Passed 60 years ago, it prohibits audiovisual coverage of public proceedings where witnesses are subpoenaed or otherwise compelled to testify.
The New York State Defenders Association opposes courtroom cameras, saying broadcasting threatens the right to a fair trial because of adverse publicity, that most states impose restrictions and that there's no First Amendment right to photograph or televise inside courtrooms.
At a panel discussion last year in Washington, D.C., judges and U.S. Attorney Ronald Machen Jr. said they were concerned about the chilling effect on potential witnesses, especially those who might be regarded as snitches. Another concern is undercover investigators.
Grant Jacquith, first assistant U.S. attorney in the Northern District of New York, said the rules generally bar cameras in federal courthouses, though the courtrooms are generally open to the public.
"Our office is concerned with both the First Amendment right of access, the public right to know, and the integrity of investigations and the safety of people who conduct them, the safety of people who come forward and tell the truth," he said.