Tuesday, October 15, 2002
Cameras in Courtroom May Aid Judiciary’s Image, Fidler Tells Fellow Judges
By a MetNews Staff Writer
Televised coverage of courtroom proceedings can help improve the image of the judiciary and should not be reflexively rejected, a veteran of high-profile criminal proceedings told an audience of fellow judges Saturday.
“I want the public to see what we do,” Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Larry P. Fidler said. “…Look at the great job we do, let’s show the public.”
Fidler joined media attorney Kelli Sager of the Los Angeles office of Davis Wright Tremaine and Los Angeles Times reporter Jean Guccione in a panel discussion on “Media Self Defense”—part of the annual meeting of the California Judges Association in Newport Beach.
Loyola Law School professor and legal commentator Laurie Levenson moderated.
Fidler, who has presided over the Sara Jane Olson bomb-making case and several proceedings arising from the Los Angeles Police Department’s Rampart scandal, acknowledged that many judges have become leery of television coverage since the O.J. Simpson trial.
A quick show-of-hands poll showed an ambivalence on the part of the audience.
Only a few of the judges present indicated a favorable view of cameras in their courtrooms. But the number who indicated they would “never” allow television coverage was no greater.
Fidler said that experiences like that of his “good friend,” Judge Lance Ito—who was in attendance—should not deter trial jurists from exercising their discretion under Rule 980 of the California Rules of Court and opening at least portions of their proceedings to television.
The alternative, he said, is to allow biased or ignorant “talking heads”—a category from which he specifically excluded Levenson—to shape the public perception of what goes on in the courtroom. By carefully crafting Rule 980 orders, Fidler commented, judges can often ensure that the public gets an accurate view of what is transpiring while protecting the integrity of the process.
“We can run it the way we think is fair,” he said. Judges should not hesitate, he explained, to bar cameras from covering the testimony of certain witnesses, or to protect the anonymity of spectators by prohibiting shots of persons entering and leaving the courtroom.
The key, he said, is to make the ground rules clear—and to avoid repetition of the problem by imposing sanctions.
“I’ve…never seen a [televised] trial without a violation” of the Rule 980 order, he said. “If there’s a violation of your order, there has to be some sanction.”
Monetary sanctions are not going to work, he cautioned. The best way to deal with offenders is to “throw them out,” he commented—“for a day, a week,” or the duration of the trial.
He will not, for example, make exceptions to the courtroom dress code for television crew members who come in wearing shorts or flip-flops, he said. If there’s a station or network logo on the camera, it has to be covered up or the camera can’t be used, he declared.
Fidler’s blunt approach drew qualified support from Sager. The media, she said, have no real complaint as long as the rules are clear and the penalties for violations proportionate.
On another issue, Fidler lent some credence to a complaint by Guccione that some court clerks are disinterested or downright hostile when reporters seek access to court files. The judge said he has come to believe that some courts play a “shell game” in which files are deliberately moved around so that journalists cannot report on the contents in a timely manner.
Files may be sealed in appropriate cases, the judge noted, if new rules on the subject are followed. But compliance with those rules has not completely taken hold, he warned.
“Most of us don’t do it right,” he said. Absent a proper sealing order, he added, judges should ensure that the file is available to the press and public.
“When you start moving [files] around,” he cautioned, “you invite trouble.”
Copyright 2002, Metropolitan News Company