Judges await outcome of court cameras pilot project

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HANCOCK COUNTY — The Indiana Supreme Court has authorized a pilot project allowing cameras in five trial courts starting in December for broadcast coverage. The decision marks a shift in thinking about transparency in Indiana courts, a move county judges say they will support.

The four-month pilot is limited to news media and is under the discretion and authorization of the trial court judge, officials with the Indiana Supreme Court said. Courts in Allen, Delaware, Lake, Tippecanoe and Vanderburgh counties will participate.

The pilot project was developed in conjunction with the Hoosier State Press Association and the Indiana Broadcasters Association. The project also allows for rebroadcasting of any live-streamed proceeding with approval from the judge.

Judge Dan Marshall of Hancock County Superior Court 2, speaking on behalf of the county judges, said they’re all of like mind.

“What we intend to do is follow whatever the Indiana Supreme Court tells us to do on cameras,” Marshall said.

As to whether the judges like or dislike the pilot program, Marshall said he doubted judges would be bothered by cameras if the pilot program is successful and media cameras are allowed into the county courtrooms on a regular basis.

“From my own personal perspective cameras in the courtroom will not affect me one way or another, because the courtroom always has a lot of people in it,” Marshall said. “It will not change the way I conduct business if they approve cameras or not.”

Steve Key, executive director and general counsel for the Hoosier State Press Association, said allowing media cameras in the courtroom is something that needs to happen.

“Its time has come,” Key said. “It’s a definite plus they are moving forward with this four-month pilot project.”

Key noted the Indiana Supreme Court justices have been looking into testing cameras in the courtroom for a few years but were derailed due to the pandemic.

“For one, I think the justices can see the technology should prevent cameras in the courtroom from being obtrusive or a distraction; and two, I think they see there is a need for greater transparency in the process so the public understands more of how the courts operate,” Key said.

Prosecutor Brent Eaton noted everything his office does is already public record and said having cameras in the courtroom should not change anything, in theory.

“Sometimes lawyers make an argument to the jury and sometimes it is toward the judge,” he said. “Presently they’re not making an argument to a television audience, but if they have to they will, particularly if it might be a young attorney trying to make a name for themselves,” Eaton said.

Transparency is important, Key noted, particularly in the polarizing times the country is going through.

“A lot of institutions are pointing at the media. They’ve come under attack and are distrusted, so this is an opportunity for them to have people judge them on the merits,” Key said.

After the pilot concludes in March, the committees will work with Hoosier State Press Association and the Indiana Broadcasters Association to evaluate the effect on the judicial process and report to the Supreme Court.

“It is important for the pilot to gather information for the five justices of the Supreme Court to consider how or if cameras in court affect the judicial process,” said Kathryn Dolan, chief public information officer for the Indiana Supreme Court.

Courtroom decorum and several conditions must be maintained for the media coverage during the pilot program and are detailed in the order. Permission must be requested 48 hours in advance and be in writing on a court-provided form. Additionally, many trial court calendars and trial court remote video hearings are already online, the Indiana Supreme Court noted.

Key believes unless there is some unforeseen issue or trouble caused by having a media camera in the courtroom during the pilot program, cameras will eventually be allowed in all Indiana courtrooms if judges allow them.

“I can’t speak for the justices, but I think this trial period is a way for them to work out any bugs, problems or issues,” Key said.

He noted there used to be major concerns for witnesses, victims and defendants in cases, but studies have shown that cameras don’t affect behavior in the courtroom. However, studies have found attorneys and judges seem to be more prepared when they know a camera will be recording the proceedings.

“Nobody wants to look foolish or make a big error and have it be on camera,” Key said.

As of 2006, all 50 states allowed some type of camera presence in their courtrooms. Fifteen states moderately restricted coverage, while another 19 had a more liberal approach. Sixteen states had rules that disallowed most coverage.

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