Cameras in Utah courtrooms — a no-brainer

It’s been 21 years since Utah Supreme Court Justice Christine Durham told the Deseret News that allowing cameras in courtrooms “may have a very positive effect. We may be better off if we behaved as if someone were watching.”

Of course, all this time later a lot fewer people actually will be watching.

In 1991 you had a limited number of choices when you plopped yourself down on the sofa and searched for the remote. Today you may decide that an endless array of “cat fails” may be more entertaining than testimony in a real-life murder trial. You may find old episodes of “Wipe Out” on Hulu beat the cross-examination of an alleged kidnapper in front of a jury of his peers, whose sentence might seem more appropriate to you if it included endless obstacle courses with hidden smack-downs and projectiles.

All of which means the Utah Judicial Council isn’t taking much of a chance any more in considering a new rule that would move Utah from one of the nation’s most restrictive states in terms of cameras in courts to one of its most open.

Still, it’s a move you ought to applaud and encourage.

The Judicial Council’s proposed new rule is titled 04-0401.01. It would change the presumption of courts in the state so that electronic media coverage is presumed to be allowed unless a judge finds reason to order otherwise. The council is accepting public comment on the proposal until Aug. 14. My suggestion is you click on this link and add your voice: Utah State Courts rules — published for comment.

The arguments in this long-standing debate haven’t changed much through the years. A study committee report on the proposal outlines them nicely. Opponents to cameras in courts worry they could change the way people act in court and that coverage could “diminish the public’s confidence in the justice system.”

Let’s think about that for a moment. Thanks to C-SPAN, you can watch Congress deliberate and vote on just about any matter of consequence. When the president signs an important law or wants to explain what he’s doing, cameras roll.

But when it comes to the third branch of government, the courts, the average person is left to believe “Judge Judy” is about as real as it gets.

Is that good for confidence in the justice system?

The report notes that empirical studies in states that allow cameras have shown “no detrimental impact on the parties, jurors, counsel or courtroom decorum.”

But “aha!” you say, won’t you end up with endless videos of “judge fails” and courtroom bloopers on YouTube? The answer is, they’re already there. Check it out. Big deal.

Nineteen states already allow cameras to record just about everything that happens in their courts.  But when someone like Brian David Mitchell goes on trial (he’s the guy who kidnapped Elizabeth Smart, remember?), the public would benefit from watching news coverage that showed what happened, or from watching it all unfold live and in HD.

A government by the people ought to be completely accessible to the people (within some reasonable limits, of course, and the proposed rule allows for those).

Twenty-one years is a long time — 1991 was before the first O.J. Simpson trial, which did for cameras in the courtroom what Dennis Rodman did to the dignity of the NBA. But Justice Durham, who remains on Utah’s highest court, was right then, and she remains so today. It’s always good to behave as if someone’s watching.

Categories: Crime, Utah issues

About the Author

Jay Evensen

Jay Evensen is the Senior Editorial Columnist for the Deseret News. He has 32 years of journalism experience covering politics and a variety of other assignments at news organizations ranging from United Press International in New York City to the Las Vegas Review-Journal and the Deseret News, where he has worked since 1986. During that time, he has won numerous local, regional and national awards. Most recently, he was given the Cameron Duncan Media Award, given annually in Washington, D.C., by the advocacy group RESULTS, to the journalist judged to have done the most to further the cause of the world's poorest people.

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