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GAO Surveys Court Video, Audio Landscape

The Government Accountability Office has released a report on video and audio coverage of arguments in appellate courts that essentially reviews the current status of video and audio and finds the same arguments for and against audio and video coverage of those courts, including the Supreme Court, that have been proffered and debated for many years.

Currently, appeals courts in 49 of 50 states allow some form of audio or video coverage, and the Supreme Court releases audio of its arguments at the end of each week and same-day in some special circumstances, though it does not allow video (it has granted 26 of 58 such requests).

If nothing else, the report is a handy reference for where things stand in federal courts, which is a mix of streaming coverage, and various post-argument releases of audio and video—same-day, end-of-week, end-of-term.

The report was requested by Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa), chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, and other legislators who back televised oral argument coverage of the Supreme court.

GAO interviewed 16 judges and nine attorneys for the report, and their takes on the impact of video and audio were mixed, as have been those of Supreme Court Justices and members of Congress.

According to GAO, 14 of the 16 judges and seven of nine attorneys cited public education as a benefit, or potential benefit where it is not currently permitted. One judge called it a useful window into how a court thinks about issues in a case. Certainly oral arguments can provide signs, but judges also play devil's advocate, so tough and probing questions do not necessarily give away a judge's inclination.

On the other side, five of the judges and eight of the attorneys also said that the media could distort coverage of arguments. That was an issue with the late Justice Antonin Scalia, an opponent of cameras in the court, who talked about snippets of argument taken out of context.

Asked specifically about cameras in the Supreme Court, four attorneys who had argued before the court cited both the educational benefits and the drawback of the potential for distortion.

GAO also said that the Supreme Court Public Information Officer, joined by three of the attorneys, raised concern about the impact of coverage on the behavior of participants in the trial. The PIO also pointed to Justice statements about affecting the dynamics of oral arguments or creating misconceptions about the court, which goes back to Scalia's concern about taking sound and video bites out of context for dramatic effect.

“The fact remains that trust in the high court is at or near an all-time low, yet modernizing the institution and its media policies would go a long way toward regaining the public’s trust,” said Gabe Roth, executive director of Fix the Court. “That countless appellate courts the world over have more permissive broadcast media policies than the U.S. Supreme Court speaks volumes."

“Cameras in America’s courtrooms can play an important role in educating the public and ensuring government transparency," Sen. Grassley said of the report. "Unfortunately, many courts at the federal level, including the Supreme Court, choose not to allow video coverage, denying many Americans the opportunity to witness this justice in action.  As this Government Accountability Report reveals, various federal courts and nearly all state judicial systems recognize the value of expanding the public window into the courts’ proceedings.  This report and the potential for additional accountability will provide helpful information the next time Congress debates allowing cameras in America’s federal courtrooms.”

Grassley is sponsor of the Sunshine in the Courtroom Act, which permits media coverage of trial and appellate proceedings, and the lead co-sponsor of the Cameras in the Courtroom Act, which requires the Supreme Court televise oral arguments.

Contributing editor John Eggerton has been an editor and/or writer on media regulation, legislation and policy for over four decades, including covering the FCC, FTC, Congress, the major media trade associations, and the federal courts. In addition to Multichannel News and Broadcasting + Cable, his work has appeared in Radio World, TV Technology, TV Fax, This Week in Consumer Electronics, Variety and the Encyclopedia Britannica.