Indiana’s Supreme Court could soon adopt a new trial rule that would allow cameras and media coverage of public court activities.

If adopted, the new rule would give local judges across Indiana discretion to allow news media to broadcast, televise, record or photograph nearly all civil and criminal court proceedings, as long as the recording does not distract participants or “impair the dignity” of the proceedings. 

The state’s current judicial conduct rules do not allow cameras and recorders during trial court proceedings, although the supreme court has given special permission for video-coverage in specific cases.

While the public has been allowed to watch live-streamed hearings from some Indiana courts during the COVID-19 pandemic, recording them has remained prohibited.

A decision to change the rule could mark a shift in the approach to transparency in Indiana courts, which county judges told the Indiana Capital Chronicle they generally support.

What the new rule would entail

A judge could limit or end the broadcast at any time.

Court matters that are closed to the public — either by state statute or Supreme Court rules — would automatically be exempt, however. 

Media broadcasts of minors, juvenile matters, sex-offense victims, jurors, attorney-client communications, bench conferences, and materials on counsel tables and judicial benches would also be prohibited, according to the proposed rule. Judges could choose to deny broadcast coverage of a witness for safety concerns, too.

Judges would additionally be able to decide who is admitted as “news media” and under what conditions. 

“News media” is defined in the proposed rule change as individuals who are “employed by or representing a newspaper, periodical, press association, radio station, television station, or wire service.”

That means the general public would not be permitted to broadcast, record or photograph proceedings.

A judge may require news media to submit formal requests to broadcast a trial court proceeding in advance of the court proceeding. A notice would then be posted in the courtroom to make it known that media might be present to broadcast court proceedings.

What local judges say

The state supreme court previously authorized a four-month test period to allow cameras in five trial courts for broadcast coverage.

The pilot project — which ended earlier this year — was developed in conjunction with the Hoosier State Press Association and the Indiana Broadcasters Association. 

Members of the news media were permitted to broadcast certain in-person proceedings in certain courtrooms in Allen, Delaware, Lake, Tippecanoe and Vanderburgh counties. The project also allowed for rebroadcasting of any live-streamed proceeding with approval from the judge.

 Delaware County Judge Marianne Voorhees (Photo from Delaware County Circuit Courts Office)

 

In the Delaware Circuit Court, Judge Marianne Vorhees granted permissions to several local media outlets to cover various cases and court proceedings, including for an attempted murder case.

Student journalists at Ball State University also recorded and photographed three dozen initial hearings, pretrial conferences and sentencings as part of a documentary film project.

“It was a unique opportunity to get into the courtroom and see what was going on,” Vorhees said. “This isn’t like on TV where something happens, and by the end of the episode, the case is concluded. It doesn’t work like that in real life. So I think people can see in real life how things do work.”

She cautioned, though, that judges “will have to be careful,” ensuring they know what exactly is going to be recorded, and how. Privacy, especially for jurors, witnesses and victims, is also critical, she said.

“I think it can help to show, ‘This is what we do on a daily basis.’ And every case is not this big, high-focus, high-profile jury trial. There are so many different things that happen in the courts, that people don’t realize, that they don’t understand,” she said. “I think that the idea is a good one. We just have to be careful, as judges, to protect privacy as much as we possibly can.”

Lake County Superior Court Judge Bruce Parent, said no local media requested to participate in the pilot program there, which he found to be both “surprising” and “disappointing.” He said the low interest likely resulted from lackluster daily proceedings — had a case on the docket been more “salacious,” there “probably would have been some intrigue.”

“Civil courts aren’t necessarily all that interesting sometimes. And so that part, I understand,” he said. “But for so long, (news media) were precluded from being able to do this. I would have thought they would have wanted to try it out and see how it went, and kind of judge for themselves whether it would be interesting or not.”

 Lake County Judge Bruce Parent (Lake County website)

 

Still, Parent said he would “applaud” the state supreme court’s adoption of a statewide rule to give judge’s the ability to permit media and cameras. Nothing Parent does on the bench is “embarrassing” or uncomfortable, the judge said, adding that having a camera on in the courtroom, “doesn’t offend me in the least.”

“I’m not sure a lot of people really understand what courts do, and if this demystifies and helps people better understand what we do, I’m in favor of it,” Parent said. 

“It makes people realize that we’re not sitting in some ivory tower, looking down their noses at people,” he continued. “We’re real people — we’re presented with facts, and presented with opposing facts, and then we’ve got to make a decision. That’s something the general public has a right to see.”

What comes next

As of 2006, all 50 states allowed some type of cameras in their courtrooms. Fifteen states moderately restricted coverage, while another 19 had a more liberal approach. Sixteen states had rules that disallowed most coverage.

The Indiana Supreme Court asked the public to submit comments on the proposed amendments before 1 p.m. Eastern Time on Aug. 1.

A decision from the judicial body is expected to be issued later this year.

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