Seattle Federal Court Begins Pilot Program to Record Civil Proceedings
The federal district court in Seattle yesterday launched a new program that permits video recording of certain civil proceedings. Though limited in scope, particularly as compared to recordings permitted in Washington state courts, the development is significant in light of the federal courts’ traditional hostility toward cameras in the courtroom.
The move is part of a nationwide pilot program to study the effects of video recording judicial proceedings in which a handful of federal district courts, including the Western District of Washington, will participate. Courts in other major cities like San Francisco, Boston, Chicago, and Miami are also participating.
Each district has its own local rules. In Washington, the presiding judge selects cases for possible recording, and requires the parties to object or consent at the beginning of the lawsuit. If the parties object, no recording will take place in the case. If they consent, then hearings will be eligible for recording, but only if the parties do not object prior to each one. In addition, the presiding judge has discretion to stop the cameras at any time. Recordings made public are posted to the court’s website. Criminal proceedings will not be recorded.
Although the program does not allow the media to record proceedings, the media or any member of the public may request that the court record a hearing no later than 20 days prior to the hearing at issue. If the parties consent, recording will take place.
In the Western District of Washington, the program is limited to the Seattle division, and to date seven judges have agreed to participate: Chief Judge Marsha J. Pechman, Judge Robert S. Lasnik, Judge Ricardo S. Martinez, Judge James L. Robart, Judge Richard A. Jones, Judge John C. Coughenour, and Judge Thomas S. Zilly.
The pilot program was announced in September 2010 by the Judicial Conference of the United States, the policy-making arm of the federal courts. Other participating districts include: Middle District of Alabama; Northern District of California; Southern District of Florida; District of Guam; Northern District of Illinois; Southern District of Iowa; District of Kansas; District of Massachusetts; Eastern District of Missouri; District of Nebraska; Northern District of Ohio; Southern District of Ohio; and Western District of Tennessee.
The Conference conducted a similar program in the 1990s but decided not to make it permanent. In 1996, the Conference allowed appellate courts to approve camera access, something just two courts—the Ninth and Second Circuits—have done.
Although recording is permitted in many states’ courts, federal courts have long resisted the effort. Most recently, the United States Supreme Court prohibited the broadcasting of the trial in a case challenging the constitutionality of California’s ban on same-sex marriage. Although the trial court recorded the hearing, the recording’s release has been blocked.
The Conference promulgated detailed guidelines for the pilot, available at http://www.uscourts.gov/uscourts/News/2011/docs/CamerasGuidelines.pdf. They require courts to gather data on the process, including on which parties did not consent and why; prohibit recording of privileged communications and sidebar conversations without the judge’s permission, and jurors while in the jury box; and prohibit the parties from using the recordings in arguing their case.