While Pa. Supreme Court decision allowing televised tapings is hailed as positive, trials still off-limits to cameras

By Jon Campisi | Sep 15, 2011

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court’s decision last month to allow televised tapings during its proceedings was no doubt hailed as score for open government advocates.

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court’s decision last month to allow televised tapings during its proceedings was no doubt hailed as score for open government advocates.

The justices themselves seem pleased with the good that can come out of having their sessions taped and aired by the Pennsylvania Cable Network, the state’s version of C-Span.

On Tuesday, when the high court made history by turning the cameras on for the first time to tape oral arguments, (the day was also historic because of the venue; the court met in Old City Hall in Independence National Historical Park, the first time it met in the first-floor courtroom in two centuries), it also started discussion in the legal community and among the general public about the potential for allowing cameras in other courts.

In Pennsylvania, trial courts and district courts are still off-limits to any type of camera or recording device. The recent decision by the seven justices only allows videotaping of the high court’s proceedings.

But the fact that the state’s supreme court has moved in a more public-friendly direction has raised a new question: will trials in Pennsylvania state courts ever get aired for public consumption?

Chief Justice Ronald D. Castille hinted at that very possibility shortly after Tuesday’s historic session. He told the Philadelphia Inquirer in Wednesday’s edition that his court might one day give the OK for trials to be taped, but with restrictions so as to avoid what some view as public spectacles, such as the O.J. Simpson or Casey Anthony trials.

“It would have to be tightly controlled,” Castille, a former Philadelphia district attorney, told the newspaper.

During a Wednesday phone interview with the Pennsylvania Record, Amy Kelchner, a spokeswoman for the Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts, confirmed Castille’s view on the prospect of trials one day being taped and aired in Pennsylvania.

And while nothing is set in stone yet, one thing remains certain: the court, not the state legislature, would make any decision concerning cameras in courtrooms.

“As a separate branch of government, that would be a decision that the courts would make,” Kelchner said.

Lynn Marks, executive director of Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts, said she could support the idea of trials being taped, just so long as there are safeguards to ensure that certain things be kept hidden from the camera’s view.

For instance, Marks would caution against showing jurors faces, as well as faces of minors involved in cases.

Still, Marks said in general, she would support cameras coming to trial courtrooms.

“I think that for trials, it’s a little bit more complicated, but certainly doable,” she said in a phone interview. “You want to balance the public’s interest in learning about government and how our courts function, but these are real people, so we want to balance that in particularly sensitive cases,” she said.

Pamela Pryor Dembe, the president judge of the Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas, did not immediately return a message seeking comment Wednesday about the prospect of trials someday being taped in Pennsylvania.

For now, Marks is simply pleased that cameras are rolling in Pennsylvania’s appellate courts, since cases heard before those judges and justices can affect all Pennsylvanians. (In addition to the state Supreme Court, TV cameras have also been rolling in Commonwealth Court and Superior Court).

“Courts often seem mysterious, and the more the courts can do to educate the people on what they do and how they do it, that’s beneficial,” Marks said. “People are just so uninformed about this branch of government. We feel it’s important for people to see our government at work."

The most exposure the general public has to the third branch of government is what’s seen in television and film, Marks said. But that can be dangerous, since TV and movies aren’t real life.

All in all, Marks is simply pleased that the justices have brought Pennsylvania more in line with courts in other jurisdictions.

“I think this is a very important step,” she said. “I applaud them for it.”

Those in the legal community also seem to be behind televised tapings of state Supreme Court arguments, for reasons similar to those offered by Marks.

“I am a big fan of open access to public proceedings,” attorney Christopher Hoare, of the firm Capehart & Scatchard, wrote to the Pennsylvania Record. “In fairness, if one has the time, we can all sit in the back of any courtroom (quietly) and observe the proceedings so why shouldn’t a video feed be permitted.”

Bret Goldstein, an attorney with the Center City, Philadelphia law firm of Reger, Rizzo & Darnall, said he, too, agrees with the recent decision allowing cameras in courts.

“I think it will be good for the legal process in that it allows more transparency for the public in terms of how judges behave and how courts are run,” he said.

However, Goldstein also cautioned against the potential for lawyers or others to use the televised platform for “grandstanding or publicity purposes.”

Overall, though, he said the decision is a “positive.”

Pete Giglione, a lawyer practicing with Wilkes & McHugh, also voiced approval for the high court’s decision to allow videotaping of its proceedings.

“This will have a profound impact on the public’s understanding of what actually happens in our courts,” he wrote in an email. “Any time we can open up the legal system to the public, it’s a good thing.”

Giglione agreed with Marks, of Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts, in that televised tapings of state Supreme Court arguments will enable citizens, and those not directly involved with the legal system, to “view the most current, significant legal issues before the Court as the Court hears arguments about them.”

“Without actually seeing a Supreme Court argument or reading the briefs filed in a case, it’s very difficult for non-lawyers to appreciate the significant legal issues and complexities of the cases that the Court deals with on a daily basis,” he said.

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