By Judge Robert S. Lasnik and Sarah K. Morehead
On March 15, the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Washington began participating in a national pilot project to evaluate the effects of cameras in the courtrooms. We were proud to have our district chosen as one of 14 district courts to participate in the project, overseen by the Judicial Conference of the United States.
The pilot project allows certain civil proceedings to be video recorded and made available for public viewing if the parties consent and the presiding judge approves. No criminal proceedings will be recorded.
Although the project is being conducted primarily for research purposes, the court is supportive of the concept of cameras in the courtroom. Court proceedings are almost always open to the public, but most members of the public lack the time to come to the courthouse.
"Hopefully, this project will allow more people to observe proceedings and increase the public's awareness of the role of the judiciary," said District Court Executive Bill McCool.
Chief Judge Marsha J. Pechman noted that the public is very interested in courtroom proceedings, as demonstrated by the abundance of courtroom drama televisions shows and plans to create a movie based on the Proposition 8 trial in California. When cameras were banned from a recent, high-profile corruption trial in Ohio, a local television news station used a troupe of puppets to re-enact scenes from the trial for viewers. Viewership increased dramatically.
Chief Judge Pechman noted, "The public is so hungry to see what goes on inside courtrooms that they're willing to turn us into Muppets. At least with the cameras in the courtroom project, we get to play ourselves."
Under the pilot project, the court will ask parties, at the beginning of newly filed cases, whether they consent to recording. If one or more of the parties declines, the court will not initiate future requests. If the parties indicate their initial consent, then prior to each hearing, the court will send all parties in the case a form asking whether they consent to recording that hearing.
In addition to court-initiated requests, requests to record proceedings may be made by parties, the media or a member of the public. Once a request is made, the court will send all parties the consent forms. A party's decision regarding whether to consent, and the reasons therefore, will not be made part of the public record in the case. A party may request that a witness be exempted from the video recording of a proceeding. Unless all parties consent to video recording a specific proceeding, the court will not record it.
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