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Originally published April 15, 2012 at 5:41 PM | Page modified April 16, 2012 at 9:45 AM

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Cameras could shed new light on Seattle's federal court

Fourteen federal courts, including one in Seattle, are experimenting with opening courtrooms to cameras and uploading proceedings to the Web.

Seattle Times staff reporter

Cameras in federal court

History: To read more about the cameras in federal courts pilot project, go to www.uscourts.gov/Multimedia/cameras.aspx.

Source: U.S. Courts

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For the second time in 20 years, the federal court system is reviewing the limited use of video cameras in a handful of courthouses across the nation.

Fourteen courts, including the Western District of Washington in Seattle, are part of a pilot project being run by the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts.

Over the next three years, some civil hearings in the selected courts will be digitally recorded by court staff. The recordings will be edited and uploaded to the website uscourts.gov for public viewing.

While cameras, including those used by the media, have long been permitted in state courts such as King County Superior Court, they are prohibited from federal courtrooms.

Because of the ban, media outlets often rely on artists to sketch proceedings in federal court. For example, when the so-called Barefoot Bandit, Colton Harris-Moore, made his first appearance in federal court in Seattle in July 2010, The Seattle Times assigned a staff artist to help cover the proceedings.

Federal rules for criminal prosecutions ban cameras in federal courtrooms, and the federal judiciary has been loathe to overturn the ban, citing the time that would be spent on administration and oversight and the possible effect on witnesses, lawyers and judges.

The pilot project doesn't involve media cameras; the recording is overseen and disseminated by court staff. Though the project was launched July 18, only a few proceedings have been uploaded because all parties involved — the judge, the lawyers and their clients — have to agree to the recording, said a spokeswoman for the courts' Administrative Office.

Kansas District Court Judge Julie Robinson said that during the one hearing she had recorded, involving a water-rights issue, she didn't even notice the camera. An administrative court committee overseen by Robinson is running the pilot project.

"For the most part people are saying that they forget the camera is there. They're unobtrusive," said Robinson, who called the courtroom camera "a little eyeball in the ceiling."

U.S. District Judge Robert Lasnik, of the Western District of Washington, said that no hearings have been recorded in Seattle — both because of equipment glitches and because they have not had participants agree to be filmed. Lasnik, who supports opening federal-court proceedings to photo and videography, has conflicting views on the project.

"There are people of good faith who are involved in this process who are looking at this objectively, but there are people who are on the federal judiciary who are close-minded who are going to oppose cameras in the courtroom no matter the circumstance," he said.

Robinson said that judges in the 14 pilot districts should be more proactive and "market" the program to lawyers.

"I'm encouraging the pilot judges to be more proactive. What we're hearing are not substantive objections to it, but fear of the unknown," she said.

In the early 1990s several courts, including the Western District of Washington, participated in a similar pilot project that resulted in a recommendation to have federal trial and appellate civil proceedings photographed, recorded and broadcast. But the federal Judicial Conference found that "the intimidating effect of cameras on some witnesses and jurors was cause for concern," according to the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts.

Robinson said that she's aware of the complaints that the current project isn't broad enough. She said the program is being done on a minimal budget, many of the courts already had the equipment and the recording and editing is being managed by court staff.

"In my view this is better than nothing," Lasnik said, adding, "This is not the program I would have designed."

Jennifer Sullivan: 206-464-8294 or jensullivan@seattletimes.com. On Twitter @SeattleSullivan.

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