A new piece of legislation is making its way through the state Assembly that would require courts to provide remote access for the media and the public during open court proceedings.
The bill, Assembly Bill 716, is authored by Assemblymember Steve Bennett, D-Ventura, and calls for California courts to provide remote access to proceedings via streaming or telephone services.
With the COVID-19 pandemic shutting down courtrooms and moving proceedings to Zoom, Mr. Bennett said public and media access to legal proceedings was limited. This lack of access, in addition to the desire for greater transparency, is what led Mr. Bennett to champion this bill.
“I think as trust and confidence in government has decreased, (there’s an) increase in the importance of transparency,” Mr. Bennett told the News-Press Friday. “This (bill) is an attempt to increase transparency in one of the branches of government, the judicial branch, that people have typically not had that kind of access to.”
Currently, state law restricts the use of cameras in courtrooms, placing an outright ban on photography, recording or broadcasting unless the court grants advanced permission.
Court cases are often seen as a balancing act between the First Amendment, which prohibits the government from abridging the freedom of the press, and the Sixth Amendment, which ensures a criminal defendant’s right to a fair trial.
In addition, a 1980 Supreme Court ruling of Richmond Newspapers Inc. v. Virginia, held that the press and the public have a right to access and attend criminal trials under First Amendment provisions.
Depending on the case, proceedings may be closed to the public to protect a defendant’s right to a fair trial by an impartial jury or to protect the victims, witnesses or jurors.
In the case of Mr. Bennett’s bill, all open proceedings would be required to provide remote access, but judges would still hold the right to restrict access to the public if they feel it is in the community’s best interest.
The use of cameras in courtrooms, while rare, is not completely outlawed nationwide.
As of 2006, all 50 states allow some form of camera presence in their courtrooms. But many states, including California, restrict the use of recording or photography devices without the express permission of the court.
In Minnesota, where the trial of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin is under way, cameras and recording devices are banned unless authorized by the court.
With the death of George Floyd drawing international attention, presiding Judge Peter Cahill made a landmark ruling that allowed cameras to be used during the trial due to vast public interest and COVID-19 restrictions limiting access to courtrooms.
This case is the first time in Minnesota’s history that a full criminal trial is being broadcast for the whole world to see, and it’s resurrecting a debate of the place of cameras in the modern courtroom.
Santa Barbara County District Attorney Joyce Dudley said she is in favor of the increased transparency that would come from cameras in the courtroom, noting that giving people insight into the courtroom could provide people with a better understanding of the justice system and hold public servants accountable.
“I’m a proponent of anything that adds transparency to things that belong to the people,” Ms. Dudley told the News-Press Friday.
She later added, “We’re public servants, and if we’re not doing our jobs well, we need to be held accountable for those actions we take. I think showing judges, lawyers and court personnel in action will have a good effect in terms of all of us being more responsible and the community being more engaged.”
While she is in support of this movement, Ms. Dudley raised concerns over the “rapid-fire pace” of the news where viewers may only see 10 seconds of a three-hour testimony. She said her concern is that the public will not hear the entire story in just a few soundbites and form an opinion based on incomplete information.
“I think (we need) to keep reminding the community and the public at large that this is only a piece of it,” Ms. Dudley said. “Sometimes testimonies are three hours long.”
William Makler, a Santa Barbara DUI and criminal defense attorney, said he views increased transparency as a good thing, but he also raised some concerns.
He said many defense attorneys are naturally against publicity, as it can draw negative attention to their client and impact a defendant’s access to an impartial jury.
“As a general measure, you don’t want your client’s worst day to become a matter of public consumption, and so from a defense standpoint, you don’t really like publicity,” Mr. Makler told the News-Press.
He also raised concerns over how far access would extend. Namely, he’s concerned about how the court would restrict people from taking recordings of court proceedings on their phones and sharing them on social media for the entire world to see.
“I think all of us would ask, do we want the worst day of our life to be potentially consequential in terms of how other people view us,” Mr. Makler said. “In terms of privacy, our personal business, decision making and misfortunes could somehow become a long-lasting issue for us in our lives depending on how much interest it gathered on the internet.”
In response to concerns, Mr. Bennett said he and his team are talking with the county’s Public Defenders to discuss a solution.
The bill was already heard and passed by the Assembly’s judicial committee and is now making its way to the Assembly floor. If it passes in the Assembly, it will be reviewed and potentially amended by the Senate.
Then once the bill passes in both the Assembly and in the Senate, it will make its way to the Gov. Gavin Newsom’s desk, possibly by the fall.
At this point, Mr. Bennett said he feels “relatively optimistic” that this bill will move closer to full approval.