Maine rules loosened on audio, video court coverage

Posted March 09, 2009, at 9:36 p.m.

PORTLAND, Maine — The Maine Supreme Judicial Court has modified its policy on cameras and audio recordings in the state’s 40 courthouses. The changes are expected to improve the news media’s access to some court proceedings.

The changes are the result of more than two years of discussion among members of the Maine Committee on Media and the Courts. The group is composed of representatives of the court system and the state’s media outlets.

Chief Justice Leigh I. Saufley signed the order that the justices agreed to unanimously on Feb. 25, and it went into effect two days later. The justices on Feb. 11 held a hearing in the Cumberland County Courthouse in Portland on the proposed changes.

The media most often cover first appearances, arraignments and sentencings in high-profile criminal cases. The news media may cover any aspect of a trial that is open to the public, and restrictions apply only to photo and video coverage.

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 may be photographed and recorded.

Under the amended rules, judges continue to have 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.

Representatives of media outlets said the changes are small steps toward opening up the state’s court system to more comprehensive coverage.

“Although the media members of the committee appreciate this order represents some progress in making Maine’s courts more accessible to visual journalists, we believe much more needs to be done,” Michael J. Dowd, managing editor of the Bangor Daily News and a member of the committee, said Monday. “We will continue to work toward the goal of being able to use our recording equipment to cover all court proceedings open to the public.”

The Maine Press Association, which represents 29 daily and weekly newspapers throughout the state, supported the changes as proposed.

The Maine Association of Broadcasters, the Maine Freedom of Information Coalition and the Hearst Corp., owner of WMTW-TV in Portland, urged the court to go further than the proposed changes and allow cameras and recording equipment in every court proceeding that is open to the public.

A Superior Court judge and Oxford County lawyer submitted written comments before the hearing opposing the changes.

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