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Maryland doesn't allow cameras in trial courts. Two Republicans want to change that for criminal sentencing

Two high-ranking Republican lawmakers are pushing for Maryland to allow media organizations to have cameras in courtrooms during criminal sentencing hearings.

“In every area of government, transparency is increasing and we think that is important in our judiciary system as well,” said Del. Nic Kipke of Anne Arundel County, who is co-sponsoring the bill with Del. Kathy Szeliga of Baltimore County.

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“Of the three branches of government, the judiciary is the least understood by the public,” Szeliga said. “It is time that we open that up to build trust with the public so they know what is going on in the judiciary.”

Kipke and Szeliga are the highest-ranking Republicans in the House of Delegates.

Under their proposal, news organizations would be able to request permission to have a camera in court at least 24 hours ahead of a criminal sentencing.

The judge in the case would then decide whether to allow cameras. The judge could limit the number of cameras allowed and require the media outlets to share their footage. The judge also could set limits on what can be recorded and broadcast, such as not filming a victim impact statement at the victim’s request.

Kipke and Szeliga said they wanted to balance their desire to increase transparency with the need to protect vulnerable victims.

Maryland bans cameras in all trial courts and efforts to undo that ban have fallen short. In 2017, Baltimore Del. Frank Conaway proposed a bill to allow cameras during sentencing that was defeated in committee with only two delegates supporting it.

Media organizations can request permission to bring cameras to the state’s two appeals courts, though only one camera is permitted at a time. The Court of Appeals, which is the state’s highest court, also broadcasts its oral arguments online.

The Maryland-Delaware-D.C. Press Association, which represents newspapers and news websites, is generally supportive of efforts to open more government functions — including court hearings — to cameras, said Rebecca Snyder, the group’s executive director.

Video footage can help journalists in reporting on court decisions, Snyder said.

“It is so powerful to help explain the context,” she said.

The Maryland Crime Victims’ Resource Center has fought to keep cameras out of courtrooms. In 2017, the group wrote in its testimony that broadcasting sentencing hearings “will have a chilling effect on victims’ rights and as such would violate their rights to be treated with dignity, respect, and sensitivity.”

The group wrote that sentencing is often the most emotionally fraught part of a criminal case, especially for relatives of murder victims. “Sentencing is the survivor’s last time to fight for their loved one. To expose a person in that vulnerable state to the gawking attention of a media circus is unthinkable,” the group wrote. “What is the benefit?”

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