Gartin Building Courtroom with the Great Seal of the State of Mississippi

Study Committee favors cameras in some trial court proceedings

December 20, 2002

A study committee of judges and journalists has recommended that some Mississippi trial court proceedings be opened to camera coverage.

The Media and the Courts Study Committee in a report submitted this week to the Mississippi Supreme Court recommended that the Supreme Court adopt rules to permit broadcast coverage and still camera coverage. While the study committee recommended statewide implementation, it offered as an alternative a pilot project to allow camera access in selected venues. The committee did not name specific areas to host a pilot project.

Camera coverage is now prohibited in Mississippi trial courts under Canon 3 B (12) of the Code of Judicial Conduct. The Supreme Court is expected to decided whether to change the rule to allow cameras. The Study Committee recommendations and proposed guidelines will be submitted to the Supreme Court's Rules Committee for study.

The guidelines proposed by the committee include some discretion by trial judges. The proposed guidelines state, "all media coverage of proceedings shall not be limited by the objection of counsel or parties, except that the courts reserve the right to limit or deny media coverage." The proposed guidelines further state, "The judge has sole and primary discretion to exclude and/or specify the type of media coverage of certain witnesses, including but not limited to the victims of sex crimes and their families, police informants, undercover officers, relocated witnesses and juveniles."

Supreme Court Justice James E. Graves Jr., chairman of the Media and the Courts Study Committee, said that under the proposal, "In order for someone not to allow camera coverage, they would have to find that there is some exception under the guidelines."

The proposed guidelines would exempt some proceedings from camera coverage. The proposed guidelines say, "Because of the following sensitive matters addressed in county, chancery and youth courts, these matters will be exempted from media coverage: divorce matters, custody, modification, contempt, child support, guardianship, conservatorship, adoption, commitment, termination of parental rights, paternity, and actions for protection from domestic abuse. Divorce actions not involving children can be excluded from this exemption upon motion filed by the media and a showing that the public's interest outweighs the parties' interest."

The proposed guidelines would prohibit photographing or videotaping jurors or potential jurors.

Guidelines propose to prohibit recording or broadcasting of evidence presented in court for the purpose of determining its admissibility. Other areas proposed to be prohibited from recording or broadcasting are conferences at the bench, in chambers or between attorney and client or attorney and witness, among others.

Guidelines propose to use one pool camera unless otherwise authorized by the trial judge.

The proposed guidelines would allow all media to use tape recorders if they do not constitute a distraction during proceedings.

The complete proposed guidelines, as well as the report and recommendations of the study committee, are available from the public information office at the Administrative Office of Courts. The telephone number is 601-354-7452.

The study committee also suggested cooperative efforts between members of the media and the judiciary to educate each other about the jobs they do. Suggestions include producing a training film and media guide to the Mississippi court system, as well as conducting panel discussions and other educational efforts.

Graves said, "The committee is not just looking at cameras in the courtroom. I want to talk about enhancing the public's confidence in the judicial system and how the media can be used to facilitate that. The work of the committee is a step toward forming relationships between the courts and the media that will educate the public regarding the judicial system and will enhance the public's confidence in that system."

Other committee members include Circuit Judges Tomie T. Green of Jackson and Billy Joe Landrum of Laurel, Chancery Judges Margaret Alfonso of Gulfport and Norman L. Gillespie of Oxford, Madison County Judge William Agin, Terry and Utica Municipal Judge Lee Agnew Jr., and Bolivar County Justice Court Judge James Strait. Media members of the committee are Dick Rizzo, director of news and public affairs for Mississippi ETV and Public Radio in Mississippi, and Dennis Smith, vice president and news director of WLBT-TV in Jackson.