Once camera-shy, state’s highest criminal court opens up


Highlights

Once forbidden, cameras are coming to the state’s highest criminal court.

A new law requires video of oral arguments at the Court of Criminal Appeals to be available online.

Although the U.S. Supreme Court remains famously camera-shy, Texas’ highest criminal court is preparing to open its little-seen downtown Austin courtroom to anybody with an internet connection and an interest in the law.

Thanks to legislation passed in May, video cameras will be mounted inside the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals this year, allowing oral arguments to be archived for later viewing and possibly watched live. The details are still being worked out.

Whether live or archived, however, the change will end a long no-cameras policy at one of the state’s most important and least known courts.

For the author of the camera legislation, it’s a matter of increased transparency for a crucial branch of government.

“Issues that affect our personal liberty will be decided at that court. I can’t wait to watch those unfold and be decided,” said state Rep. Terry Canales, D-Edinburg, author of House Bill 214.

“I’ve practiced criminal defense for over a decade, and I’ve never heard an oral argument in the Court of Criminal Appeals, so I’m excited personally because I’ll be able to click online and watch some of the biggest cases in Texas criminal law,” Canales said.

The Texas Supreme Court, its civil-law sister, has been showing oral arguments online for a decade, belying fears that cameras would lead to grandstanding by lawyers or stifle questions from judges afraid of looking foolish on video, said Wallace Jefferson, the former chief justice who pushed to have the cameras installed.

“It was one of the first things I wanted to accomplish,” Jefferson said, recalling the frustration of being a lawyer listening to arguments on scratchy cassette audiotapes, the only way court proceedings had been archived. “I thought it would be much better — not just for lawyers but the public, the media and interested parties — to watch an argument live without having to travel to Austin.”

Jefferson said fears that lawyers would grandstand were overblown. Since cameras were added in 2007, he said only one attorney appeared to bombastically play to the wider audience, and that nonsense stopped once the justices jumped in with questions focused on the law — the key feature of oral arguments.

The cameras also had an unintended consequence with judges who didn’t want to look silly or unprepared, particularly when they had to run for re-election every six years, Jefferson said.

“It just doesn’t look good; you look like you’re not serious about your job,” he said. “I think what happened after the cameras came was that we had much more prepared jurists considering these cases.”

Longtime ban

Sharon Keller, the presiding judge of the Court of Criminal Appeals, said the nine-member court long ago voted to ban cameras from the courtroom — a policy she wholeheartedly supported.

With cameras now mandated by the Legislature, Keller said she’s neutral on the matter but is looking forward to having expanded public access.

“This is an opportunity to show them what we do. I’ll be interested to see how many people watch our arguments,” she said.

The Legislature provided $346,000 to buy equipment and operate a courtroom video system for the next two years, but the money doesn’t become available until Sept. 1, delaying the purchase and installation of components.

Once running, the video setup will allow arguments to be shown live, but Keller said she hasn’t yet had a chance to discuss that option with other judges on the court.

“We decided years ago that we don’t want cameras in courtroom, but a lot of those judges are gone now, and I don’t know what the new judges think. But it does seem to be the wave of the future,” Keller said.

In one sense, Keller’s court is a late arrival to the game. The highest courts in 29 states videotape oral arguments to air online or on a government TV channel, according to the National Center for State Courts.

At U.S. Supreme Court

The biggest holdout, however, has been the U.S. Supreme Court, where the only way to see oral arguments is to visit Washington, D.C., and be one of about 250 people at the front of the line.

Although Justice Neil Gorsuch, the high court’s newest member, said during his March confirmation hearing that he was open to cameras, the rest of the nine-member court has stated sharp opposition to the idea — most recently Justice Stephen Breyer, who said in a June speech that he feared cameras would change the nature of oral arguments.

The American Bar Association last year urged the U.S. Supreme Court to make video recordings of arguments available, noting that it is the “lone branch of government whose proceedings citizens cannot watch.”

This year, U.S. Rep. Ted Poe, R-Humble, reintroduced the Cameras in the Courtroom Act with Rep. Gerry Connelly, D-Va., requiring television coverage of open sessions unless a majority of justices determines that cameras would violate the due process rights of a party in the case.

“I was one of the first judges in Texas to allow cameras in the courtroom. It worked,” Poe said when the bill was filed. “A simple, nonintrusive camera would allow for greater transparency and greater faith in the decisions made by the federal government.”

Similar measures, however, have failed to pass in previous sessions of Congress.

Jefferson predicted that cameras eventually will be allowed at the U.S. Supreme Court, following the example set by courts in Texas and elsewhere.

“The Supreme Court of the United States can look at (state courts) and conclude that the fears are just not really justified, and that the advantages far outweigh any detraction,” he said.



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