June 23, 2018
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Court to consider more trial access for news media

By Judy Harrison, BDN Staff

BANGOR, Maine — The Maine Supreme Judicial Court will consider revisions to its policy on the use of cameras and audio recording equipment that, if approved, would improve the news media’s access to some court proceedings.

Written comments on the proposal must be submitted by Friday, Jan. 30, according to the court system’s Web site. The justices will hold a public hearing on the proposal at 1:45 p.m. Wednesday, Feb. 11, at the Cumberland County Courthouse in Portland.

The proposed order is the result of more than two years of discussion among members of the Maine Committee on Media and the Courts. The group is made up of representatives from the court system and the state’s media outlets.

Currently, cameras and audio recording equipment, with the permission of the presiding judge, are allowed in District and Superior Court proceedings — including pretrial motion hearings and trials — except when testimony is being given. The media most often cover first appearances, arraignments and sentencings in high-profile criminal cases. At present, media can cover any aspect of a trial that is open to the public, and restrictions apply only to photo and video coverage.

If approved, the new policy makes clear that cameras and recording devices may be used to capture opening and closing statements in criminal jury trials, judges’ instructions to juries and the reading of a verdict as long as jury members cannot be identified. Pretrial and post-trial hearings on issues such as bail, new trials and the suppression of evidence also could be photographed and recorded.

When covering hearings, the media also would be able to photograph and record the testimony of public officials such as police officers, private investigators, expert witnesses, medical personnel and representatives of corporate or business entities.

Judges would retain the discretionary power to deny or limit media coverage and to regulate the number of recording devices and their placement in court.

Family court proceedings would continue to be off limits, as would civil court proceedings in which sexual assault or sexual misconduct is alleged, unless all parties agree to coverage. Court sessions in which trade secrets might be revealed also would continue to be prohibited from camera coverage.

The proposal still forbids the media from photographing or recording the following in jury and jury-waived trials:

ä Jury selection and jury members.

ä The testimony of all witnesses.

ä Sidebar and in-chamber conferences.

ä Minors, unless they are being prosecuted as adults.

Crime victims, people speaking on behalf of defendants and the disabled still would be able to request not to be recorded or photographed under the proposed rule change.

“From the media’s perspective, the changes contained in this proposal constitute limited progress in our fight to make what goes on in Maine’s courtrooms as accessible to the public as possible,” Michael J. Dowd, managing editor of the Bangor Daily News and a committee member, said Friday.

“While we appreciate the judiciary’s improving our camera access to specified proceedings, we will continue to work toward the day when, as in many other states, media members will be allowed to use all the tools of our trade when reporting on trials from start to finish,” Dowd said.

Superior Court Justice Joseph Jabar, who is chairman of the committee, said Friday that the proposal would “open the door a little bit more” but not completely to the media’s desire to cover a majority of court proceedings.

“The concern has always been the impact cameras in the courtrooms have on witnesses and their testimony and how that might influence a jury,” he said.

For information on how to submit written testimony, visit www.courts.state.me.us.

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