Camera coverage allowed in Mississippi courts

April 17, 2003

The Mississippi Supreme Court on Thursday adopted rules that permit broadcast and still camera coverage of trial and appellate court proceedings, with some restrictions.

The Mississippi Rules for Electronic and Photographic Coverage of Judicial Proceedings will become effective July 1, 2003. The rules will expire Dec. 31, 2004, unless extended by order of the Supreme Court.

The rules apply to the Mississippi Supreme Court, Court of Appeals, chancery courts, circuit courts and county courts.

The newly adopted rules do not apply to justice courts and municipal courts. Camera coverage of justice court and municipal court proceedings continue to be prohibited under the Code of Judicial Conduct.

Mississippi Supreme Court Chief Justice Edwin L. Pittman said justice courts and municipal courts were excluded because those are not courts of record. Courts of record are those which have their proceedings transcribed for purposes of appeal.

Pittman said, "This will allow the courts of record to develop the use of cameras in the courtroom. Once we prove the success of the new and additional media coverage, we will extend it to the justice and municipal courts."

Justice James E. Graves Jr. served as chairman of the Media and the Courts Study Committee, which in December 2002 recommended allowing camera coverage of all state courts.

Graves called the rules adopted Thursday "a milestone for the court system." Graves said, "It's a step in the right direction in terms of informing the public about the justice system. It brings Mississippi in line with the majority of the other states which allow camera access to courtrooms."

Graves said one of the criticisms of broadcast coverage is that information is compressed into a few seconds of air time. But, Graves said, "If this coverage provokes a dialogue about the judicial system and sparks an interest in learning about the judicial system, I think that's beneficial."

Justice William L. Waller Jr., chairman of the Supreme Court Rules Committee which developed the recommendations into rules, said permitting camera coverage of court proceedings will promote public access to and understanding of the courts.

Waller said, "I think this will enhance public awareness of court proceedings. We want and need the public to be more educated about what goes on in the courts." Waller said, "This is a step toward furthering public access to our courts while being at the same time minimally intrusive to the court proceedings."

Waller said the court will review the camera access rules after a trial period. Waller said, "We intend to make a comprehensive review of the rules to insure that the public is served and the litigants are not hindered by the process."

Pittman said, "We recognize that there is opposition to allowing further media coverage of the courts, both from some members of the public and from some within the judiciary and the legal profession. We adopted an automatic repealer so we have to revisit it, see if it works and fine-tune it if necessary."

Pittman praised the work of the Supreme Court Rules Committee, which includes Justices Waller, Kay Cobb and George C. Carlson Jr., and the work of the Study Committee on Media and the Courts, which included eight judges and two journalists. The study committee conducted five public meetings to discuss the possibility of allowing camera coverage and studied the electronic media access rules of other states.

The adoption of electronic media coverage rules came two years after the Supreme Court began broadcasting its oral arguments via the Internet. Court of Appeals arguments have been available on the Internet since August 2001.

Rules overview

The new rules define electronic media coverage as "any reporting, recording, broadcasting, narrowcasting, cablecasting, and webcasting of court proceedings by the media using television, radio, photographic, recording, or other electronic device.

The new rules allow judicial discretion to limit electronic media coverage. According to the rules, the presiding justice or judge "has the discretion to limit or terminate electronic coverage at any time during the proceedings if the court deems such necessary and in the interest of justice to protect the rights of the parties or witnesses, or the dignity of the court, or to assure orderly conduct of the proceedings."

The rules state, "All electronic coverage is subject at all time to the authority of the presiding justice or judge to (i) control the conduct of the proceedings, (ii) ensure decorum and prevent distraction, and (iii) ensure fair administration of justice in the pending case. The rights of the parties to a fair adjudication are recognized as paramount."

The rules prohibit videotaping or photographing jurors or potential jurors before their final dismissal.

Electronic coverage is prohibited, unless authorized by the presiding judge, in matters of divorce, child custody, support, guardianship, conservatorship, commitment, waiver of parental consent to abortion, adoption, delinquency and neglect of minors, determination of paternity, termination of parental rights, domestic abuse, motions to suppress evidence, proceedings involving trade secrets, and in camera proceedings.

Electronic coverage is prohibited of witnesses including: police informants, minors, undercover agents, relocated witnesses, victims and families of victims of sex crimes, and victims of domestic abuse.

No audio recording is permitted of off-the-record conferences in the courtroom between the court and counsel, or between counsel and co-counsel, or between counsel and clients or witnesses. Rules also state that judicial proceedings held in chambers and proceedings generally closed to the public shall not be subject to electronic coverage.

Parties to court proceedings may object to electronic media coverage. The provision states, "Any party may object to electronic coverage by written motion, which may be supported by affidavits. Such motions shall be filed no later than fifteen (15) days prior to commencement of the judicial proceedings, unless good cause exists to shorten the time for filing."

A notice requirement states, "Media representatives who propose to engage in electronic coverage of a judicial proceeding shall notify the clerk and the court administrator of the court of such intention at least forty-eight (48) hours prior to the commencement of the proceeding. The presiding justice or judge may shorten or waive the time for advance notice."

A pool requirement states, "No more than one television camera or video recorder, one audio system for radio broadcasting, and one still photographer shall be allowed in any judicial proceeding. Any pooling arrangements among the media required by these limitations on equipment and personnel shall be the sole responsibility of the media without calling upon the presiding justice or judge to mediate any dispute as to the appropriate media representative or equipment authorized to cover a particular proceeding. In the absence of advance media agreement on disputed equipment or personnel issues, the presiding justice or judge shall exclude all contesting media personnel from a proceeding."

The rules state that electronic coverage must not pose a distraction or disrupt proceedings. Movement of reporters or equipment shall be limited and may be prohibited during proceedings.

Rules state, "Only equipment which does not produce distracting sound or light shall be employed to cover judicial proceedings. No flash or strobe lighting shall be used. All running wires shall be securely taped to the floor. No other artificial lighting device of any kind shall be employed in connection with electronic coverage unless otherwise authorized by the court."

Rules also state, "Electronic media equipment shall not be taken into the courtroom, relocated, or removed from the designated media area except prior to convening of the judicial proceedings, during recesses, and after adjournment for the day. This prohibition shall not apply to small, handheld electronic devices."

The rules state that in the interest of decorum, "Court customs shall be followed, including appropriate attire."

The Chief Justice of the Supreme Court and the Chief Judge of the Court of Appeals may waive restrictions in appellate courts.

The above summary does not include every detail of the rules. A copy of the rules is available on the web site of the Mississippi Supreme Court at courts.ms.gov.

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MEDIA CONTACT:   Beverly Pettigrew Kraft
Administrative Office of Courts
601-354-7452