Pennsylvania Supreme Court to start televising proceedings

Jon Campisi Aug. 17, 2011, 6:24am

For judicial reform advocates, the move will surely be viewed as a long-awaited leap into the 21st Century.

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court, the oldest of its kind in the nation, has announced it will start airing courtroom proceedings on local cable television.

The move is a vast departure from the high court’s long-standing aversion to cameras in the courtrooms.

The announcement was made Aug. 15 via news release from the Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts.

The release states that the Pennsylvania Supreme Court will allow “gavel to gavel coverage” of oral arguments to be broadcast by the Pennsylvania Cable Network (PCN), whose website describes it as the “Commonwealth’s version of C-SPAN,” specializing in the broadcast of state governmental proceedings.

“My colleagues and I are pleased to open our courtroom to PCN’s statewide audience so they can see how our court operates and follow arguments in cases affecting every citizen of Pennsylvania,” Pennsylvania Supreme Court Chief Justice Ronald D. Castille said in the news release.

Castille, the release states, noted that the agreement with PCN was reached after the broadcast entity had operated successful pilot videotaping programs in the Commonwealth Court and Superior Court, both state appellate courts.

Trials at municipal/district courts and the state’s common pleas courts are still closed to cameras.

To PNC President Brian Lockman, the decision to allow video cameras at the Supreme Court was a wise one.

“Chief Justice Castille and all the justices are to be commended for their leadership in taking this historic step,” he said in the court’s news release. “They are giving Pennsylvanians the opportunity to see the Supreme Court performing its duties as it has since 1684.”

The court has taken some safeguards to ensure that sensitive material will remain hidden from public view, such as those proceedings deemed “sealed” or when there are “sidebar” conferences between a justice and the lawyers involved in a case, or between attorneys themselves.

The rules also stipulate that none of the publicly broadcast material will ever constitute as evidence at trial, either the one that was being taped or other, subsequent trials.

The ruling states that the PCN has sole decision-making authority over what proceedings will be taped. The ones that are taped, however, must be broadcast in their entirety.

The PCN will not broadcast the Supreme Court proceedings live; they will be taped and aired at a later date.

Open government advocates have, for some time, been calling for more transparency in all branches of Pennsylvania’s government.

This latest move seems to please that segment of society.

“Certainly good news,” Pennsylvania Bar Association President Matthew J. Crème Jr. told Philadelphia’s Legal Intelligencer newspaper. “It adds to confidence in the justice system by adding another opportunity for transparency.”

But others have always worried that the public broadcasting of court proceedings could taint the process, namely by providing entertainment value to an otherwise solemn process.

Those concerns seem to include O.J. Simpson or Casey Anthony-type trials, which some claim become more spectacle than judicial proceeding.

According to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court’s new internal operating rule, the court, not the PCN, holds the broadcast copyrights to its proceedings.

Furthermore, only “robotic cameras,” not those operated by an individual, will be allowed to tape the proceedings.

“Equipment shall not produce distracting sound or light,” the rule reads. “Signal lights or devices to show when the equipment is operating shall not be visible.”

The cable television broadcasts of court proceedings will be made available to the PCN’s 3.3 million subscribers.

The taped coverage is expected to begin on Sept. 13, according to a report in the Philadelphia Business Journal.

According to the Radio Television Digital News Association, other states have been way ahead of Pennsylvania when it comes to media coverage of trials. The Supreme Court of neighboring New Jersey, for example, has provided live webcasts of oral arguments and archives since January 2005.

The Garden State also allows cameras in its courtrooms under some circumstances.

The Radio Television Digital News Association’s website provides a state-by-state guide concerning where cameras are allowed inside courtrooms and where they are not. To learn more, visit.

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