By Dan Shelley, RTDNA Executive Director
It was this tweet that caught my attention.
So I reached out to the person who posted the tweet, RTDNA member Melissa Luck, the newly named news director and, prior to that, longtime assistant news director at Morgan Murphy Media-owned KXLY-TV in Spokane, Washington. The Spokane DMA covers part of northern Idaho.
Luck told me that what prompted her tweet was ongoing frustration with many of the 17 judges in Idaho’s First Judicial District Court, which encompasses five counties in the Idaho panhandle.
The tipping point involved a terse, unexplained one-sentence court order in which Judge Justin Julian denied her newsroom and others the use of cameras during a preliminary hearing for a man, Jacob Coleman, charged with the murder of a Spokane cab driver in Kootenai, Idaho.
It was particularly frustrating, Luck said, because the judge allowed cameras in the courtroom for an earlier Coleman court appearance.
“It happens all the time. It is constant,” Luck told me of the denials she often gets from judges in the First Judicial District Court, even though, according to RTDNA’s Cameras in the Courts State by State Guide, the Idaho Court Administrative Rules specifically permit “extended coverage of all public proceedings,” including court proceedings that are otherwise open to the public.
But here’s the catch. Idaho’s rules state, according to the RTDNA Guide, “In trial courts, the presiding judge may prohibit coverage or order that the identity of a participant be concealed when such coverage would have a substantial adverse effect upon that participant.”
Luck says that’s the loophole that many northern Idaho judges use to deny, or restrict in some other way, cameras in their courtrooms. In one case, she told me, a judge allowed cameras but ruled that news organizations could never show him. Another judge allowed cameras, but ordered they could not zoom.
Another case that particularly rankles Luck is that of Jonathan Renfro, who was convicted of first degree murder for the 2015 shooting death of a police sergeant in Coeur D’Alene, Idaho. The judge allowed cameras in the courtroom for trial and the sentencing phase of Renfro’s trial, in which he possibly faces the death penalty, but only one still camera – no TV camera allowed.
Also annoying to Luck is her assertion that the prosecutor in the Coleman case, in Bonner County, Idaho, won’t talk to reporters at all. “I don’t work for you,” she says he told journalists at one point. “I work for the people.”
Huh? Aren’t journalists people? Don’t journalists serve the same people the Bonner County, Idaho, prosecuting attorney serves?
“We have an obligation to cover court proceedings in northern Idaho, just as we do in Washington State, where having cameras in courtrooms is really easy,” Luck said. “It’s part of our responsibility to serve the public.”
The problems Luck and her colleagues and competitors face in northern Idaho are a microcosm of a much larger problem in many parts of the country. According to RTDNA’s Guide, only 34 states allow cameras in the courts. Thirteen states and the District of Columbia still ban cameras outright. One state, Oklahoma, has no rules at all accommodating cameras.
Most federal courts also prohibit cameras, with some exceptions in the 9th Circuit, which includes Idaho, Washington, seven other western states and the territories of Guam and the Northern Mariana Islands. There are also some exceptions, though far fewer, in the 2nd Circuit, which covers New York, Connecticut and Vermont.
Cameras have never been allowed in the U.S. Supreme Court, although it does release audio recordings of its oral arguments online.
It was RTDNA, by the way, that first convinced the Supreme Court to release audio recordings of its public proceedings, in the Bush v. Gore case, which decided the 2000 presidential election in December of that year. Then-RTNDA President Barbara Cochran framed the letter from then-Chief Justice William Rehnquist and still keeps it as a memento of that historic victory for media coverage of, and public transparency in, the nation’s highest court.
Right now, RTDNA is supporting the Sunshine in the Courtroom Act of 2017, which “authorizes the presiding judge of a U.S. appellate court or U.S. district court to permit the photographing, electronic recording, broadcasting, or televising to the public of court proceedings over which that judge presides, except when it would constitute a violation of the due process rights of any party.”
The bill was jointly introduced in March by Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa), chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, and committee member Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minnesota). It is still pending before the committee.
RTDNA is the nation's leading advocate of opening courtrooms at all levels to broadcast and digital media coverage and works with newsroom and court leaders across the country to develop clear and fair rules to allows journalists and judges to best serve the people.
Responsible journalism – journalists’ ability to fulfill their Constitutionally-guaranteed duty to serve the public by seeking and reporting the truth – demands cameras in the courts.