Justice Graves will head committee to study court and media issues

November 29, 2001

Supreme Court Chief Justice Edwin L. Pittman on Thursday appointed Justice James. E. Graves Jr. to head a committee that will study the feasibility of allowing cameras in the trial courts.

Graves said he plans to take a broader look at media issues. Graves said the committee could study issues of media access and the relationship between the media and the judiciary.

Graves said, "I hope ultimately that the committee can improve the relationship between the courts and the media, because both entities exist to serve the public interest."

Graves said issues for study could include media access to records and hearings, as well as whether to allow cameras in the trial courts. He said he would anticipate some discussion of the issuance of gag orders.

Graves also wants to discuss how judges may respond to public criticism. The Code of Judicial Conduct in Mississippi prohibits judges from commenting on pending matters, except to explain the procedures of the court. A revision proposal pending before the court would change the code to say, "A judge shall not, while a proceeding is pending or impending in any court, make any public comment that might reasonably be expected to affect its outcome or impair its fairness."

Some other states allow a committee of lawyers or judges to respond on a judge's behalf in instances in which the official is the subject of media criticism.

The study committee headed by Graves is expected to include at least six other judges: two circuit judges to be appointed by the chair of the Conference of Circuit Judges, two chancellors to be appointed by the chair of the Conference of Chancery Judges, one county judge to be appointed by the chair of the Conference of County Court Judges, and one justice court judge to be appointed by the president of the Justice Court Judges Association. The committee is expected to begin work by mid-December.

Graves said, "Journalists and media representatives will have ample opportunity to discuss issues with the committee, but it is not anticipated at this time that journalists will be members of the committee."

Pittman, who is not a member of the review committee, told media representatives Tuesday, "It is time for us to review the rules of media coverage concerning the trial courts. We will involve the trial judges."

Mississippi Supreme Court and Court of Appeals oral arguments are broadcast on the Internet. At the Supreme Court, broadcast journalists may access and record video and audio from courtroom cameras via portals outside the courtroom. Still photographs may be reproduced from a CD recording of the proceedings at the Supreme Court and Court of Appeals. Pittman said Internet access promotes accountability.

But in the trial courts, Pittman said, "It's much more difficult to open those courts to a media view."

Pittman said his concern is courtroom reaction to the presence of cameras. Pittman said, "We don't want the jurors to become a part of a skit or a scene. We don't want the judge to become part of being an actor in a courtroom."

For more information, contact Beverly Pettigrew Kraft, court public information officer, at 601-354-7452 or bkraft@courts.ms.gov.

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