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Court considers broadcasts

THE BALTIMORE SUN

The state's highest court, eager to increase its visibility, is studying whether to broadcast its oral arguments online or through a cable outlet, something that would bring Maryland in line with appeals courts in 21 states that offer some recorded coverage.

The Maryland Court of Appeals, which already allows camera access, has a practical motive for looking at widespread broadcast: to make the proceedings more accessible to a public that might not be able to visit Annapolis or fit in the cramped courtroom.

But those who like the idea see other benefits, as well.

"It can do nothing but good for the public perception and realization of how difficult some of these issues are and what is being talked about," said John F. Fader II, a former Baltimore County Circuit Court judge and a senior judicial fellow at the University of Maryland law school.

Official broadcast of staid appellate court arguments is a far cry from live coverage in the state's criminal courts - something not on the horizon anytime soon in Maryland, despite recent attempts at legislation that would have authorized cameras in the lower courts.

And even supporters concede the Colonial-era trappings of the high court - the seven judges dressed in crimson robes, sitting on the court that was created in 1776 - probably wouldn't attract record viewership.

"Frankly, there is not going to be an American Idol-type of response to this," Fader said.

The idea remains in its early stages, said Sally W. Rankin, spokeswoman for Maryland's judiciary, who is exploring the idea of partnering with the University of Maryland journalism school to help provide a civics lesson to the greater public.

"It's a chance for those who want to learn more about how the courts operate and for citizens who want to know more about how democracy works," she said.

But Lawrence Fletcher-Hill, who argued before the high court about 10 times as the chief of litigation for the state attorney general's office, said he worries that broadcasting oral arguments could detract from the proceedings if lawyers take advantage of the cameras by attempting to communicate beyond the bench and to the public.

"The best oral arguments are an opportunity to address questions that the judges have and to do it in a very sensible and helpful way," said Fletcher-Hill, now a partner at the law firm of Gordon Feinblatt in Baltimore. "If the idea of broadcast gets in the way of the ability to communicate, then I think it could be harmful."

Nationwide, courts follow a wide range of guidelines when it comes to what kinds of legal proceedings can be broadcast and how.

The high courts in 21 states carry at least some of their proceedings online, according to the National Center for State Courts.

And 36 states allow some form of camera access in both trial and appellate courts, according to a 2001 study by the center.

In North Carolina, cameras have been allowed in criminal trials at the judge's discretion for about 20 years, said Dick Ellis, spokesman for North Carolina's administrative office of the courts. He said his office has received no complaints and that, generally, it has been a positive experience.

"The only trouble we've really had is out in the hall, people grabbing the family members, saying, 'Can I interview you?' and putting a camera in their face," Ellis said, explaining that witnesses will usually be escorted by a bailiff if they don't want to be interviewed by the media.

In Florida, the Supreme Court has been broadcasting live all of its proceedings since 1997, said Craig Waters, the court's director of public information. The proceedings are broadcast by Florida State University and can be downloaded from the Internet or watched on the Florida Channel, the state's government channel.

At first, the court faced some criticism from people who feared that cameras might cause attorneys to "grandstand," Waters said. On the first day of broadcast, an attorney in the first case apparently was a little too nervous: After the chief judge announced that the proceedings would be broadcast live, the attorney fainted.

"We had the chief justice saying, 'Is there a doctor in the house?'" Waters said. "We gave [the attorney] a soft drink and gave him a seat and let him resume arguments later in the day."

But these days, the robotic cameras in the courtroom don't cause a distraction. "They look like security cameras, and a lot of the attorneys don't really notice them," Waters said.

In Maryland, the Court of Appeals allows photographers and news cameras in the courtroom, but it has no arrangement for live broadcast or for complete arguments to be broadcast at a later time.

Rankin said the idea of broadcasting Court of Appeals arguments was driven largely by the desire to enable students to watch proceedings.

"In the last couple months, we had four school groups come on the same day," she said. "We tried to get them to come on different days, but they were very interested in certain cases. ... Somehow it all worked out. It was difficult."

Rankin said she also wants to reach schools in Western Maryland and on the Eastern Shore, where students might not be able to make the trek to Annapolis to watch the proceedings.

Details still would have to be worked out. Sue Kopen Katcef, a broadcast journalism teacher at Maryland, said she is discussing with Rankin the idea of Web or cable outlet broadcast.

"Our students are fully capable of handling the camera; it's a question of would it be stretching ourselves too thin," she said. "We'd have to discuss it, see what the costs could be."

But even if such a system is set up, there's no guarantee such access would be expanded to Maryland trial courts.

Civil trials in Maryland can be filmed if all parties agree - something that happens rarely, if ever. But cameras are prohibited in criminal trial court proceedings, according to the state judiciary, and Rankin predicted that broadcasting the high court proceedings "would have no affect on what would happen in the trial courts."

Del. Michael D. Smigiel Sr., a lawyer who sponsored an unsuccessful bill in the last legislative session to allow news organizations to bring cameras into criminal proceedings, hopes that prediction is wrong.

"We need to do everything we can to make sure that the public sees what goes on in our courts," said Smigiel, a Cecil County Republican. "I can't be adamant enough in my belief that we need to open up the courts and the court proceedings."

But Fader said it's much trickier to balance the issues involved in camera access at the trial court level.

"When you're talking about trial work, you're talking about the same importance and responsibility of educating the public," he said. "But you have other considerations of the witnesses, their comfort level, the fairness of the trial, making sure that lawyers are not grandstanding for cameras."

Weighed against those factors is the value that broadcast exposure can have in bolstering a court's stature.

Florida offers a prime example. Its Supreme Court received international attention during the 2000 presidential election controversy, when issues involving the vote recount ended up there.

"The entire world was able to watch the oral arguments," said Waters. "The commentary after the arguments each time was that the justices clearly were not making political arguments, they were making legal arguments.

"The fact that people could see that happening and understand that the arguments were not a political matter, they were a legal matter, really made the situation much better than it might have been."

laura.cadiz@baltsun.com

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