In a federal courtroom in Seattle last June, Judge James Robart made it clear he was unhappy with Seattle’s actions around police accountability.
“I am VERY upset and frustrated that you’ve engaged in this kind of behavior,” Robart told members of the Community Police Commission.
This emotional quote didn’t come from the court transcript – it came from a video recording. Which was remarkable because cameras are normally not allowed in federal District Court.
But four years ago, 14 district courts, including the one in Seattle, conducted a pilot in which they recorded some civil cases and posted the video online.
Robart’s colleague U.S. District Judge Robert Lasnik said that Seattle’s federal bench supports the cameras. Lasnik said many of his peers come from King County Superior Court, where cameras are common.
“We know that they’re easily accommodated in modern times and reflect very well on the judiciary to show we’re doing a good job,” he said.
Still, opinions on cameras vary by jurisdiction. The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals is among the most open. That court provides live-streaming of its oral arguments.
But beyond that, Lasnik said, “At the highest levels of the judiciary, which is the United States Supreme Court, there is extreme opposition to cameras in their court and a fear that it will affect the fairness of federal trials.”
Chief Justice John Roberts heads the 27 federal judges known as the Judicial Conference. Next spring, that group will decide whether to continue or curtail the use of cameras in federal District Court. Lasnik said Roberts’ opinion will cast a big shadow.
“He’s only one vote, but let’s face it, in that situation we all look to the chief justice as the leader of the federal judiciary for leadership and guidance,” he said.
Roberts has said publicly that he’s anxious to see the results of the pilot project. In 2011 he told the C-SPAN channel that the high court is increasing its transparency, but that the idea of cameras concerns him.
“We have made some changes,” Roberts said. “It used to be we didn’t release transcripts of arguments, now we release them within a half hour. It used to be audio recordings were released at the end of the term, now they’re released at the end of every week.”
Judges aren’t the only ones with concerns. In the District Court pilot, both parties had to consent for the case to be video recorded. That consent was rare.
Steve Rummage is a Seattle attorney who defends corporate clients in class-action suits and other cases. He said none of his clients consented to have their case video-recorded during that time.
“A lot of them are concerned about the whole idea of having their dirty laundry or anybody’s dirty laundry put online by folks,” Rummage said. “Their visceral reaction often is, ‘I’m comfortable doing it the way we’ve always done it,’ which is without a camera in the courtroom.”
One concern about cameras is intimidation of witnesses and jurors. That’s why the pilot was for civil cases – not criminal. Jurors’ faces were never shown.
Another fear is that the cameras would influence how lawyers and judges behave. Rummage said that happened during a recent trial in King County Superior Court, where a camera streamed the case to a website.
“It actually wasn’t a positive thing, because the lawyer on the other side not only played to the camera but made reference to the camera in what many of us thought was an improper way,” he said.
But Rummage mostly supports the cameras. He frequently streams live coverage of the Washington State Supreme Court. And he has sent links of his own court appearances as calling cards to other clients.
Judge Lasnik said a review of the pilot is largely positive. A previous pilot in the early '90s also went smoothly, he said. But then came a trial in 1995 that caught the world’s attention.
“The big setback for cameras in the courtroom was the O.J. Simpson case,” he said. “But even there, I think it’s better people saw what a travesty the trial was and how weak the trial judge was.”
That trial sparked a backlash against cameras. This pilot is the first time federal district courts have considered them since. A year into the pilot, the collected videos had been viewed more than 100,000 times.
That includes the hearings on police accountability in Seattle.