New York Upholds Ban On Cameras In The Courtroom

The Appellate Division, Supreme Court, First Judicial Department of New York has voted 5-0 in favor of upholding a ban on cameras in New York courtrooms, saying the ban is Constitutional. The ruling, made June 22, was the result of an appeal by Courtroom Television Network (Court TV) in its suit against the State of New York. Court TV brought the original lower court case on September 5, 2001 hoping to have the ban overturned by seeking a declaration that Section 52 of the state's civil rights law was unconstitutional under both the New York and U.S. Constitutions.

The National Press Photographers Association, through its lawyers, submitted an Amicus Curiae (friend of the court) brief on March 19 supporting Court TV's challenge and joining in the call to overturn the ban. As an organization with a strong interest in the subject, NPPA is permitted by law to file such a document in matters of broad public interest.

"We're not quite dead yet, but it's unfortunate," said attorney Mickey H. Osterreicher. He helped draft the Amicus Brief for NPPA as "of counsel." As a photojournalist for more than thirty years and an NPPA member since 1972, he has worked as a still photographer and videographer in Buffalo, NY. In 1995 he enrolled in law school and was admitted to the New York Bar in 1999.

New York is one of only three states that still ban cameras from the courtroom. It is also one of only a handful of states where the Legislature, not the state's highest court, enacts the law dealing which such matters.

"We reject the contention that a right to televise court proceedings exists under New York Constitution article 1, section 8," the court said in their ruling. "There is no precedent in New York recognizing such a right." They also ruled, "There is no federal Constitutional right to televise court proceedings," citing the cases of Santiago v. Bristol and United States v Moussaoui.

The justices also said while the New York Constitution has, in some instances, been "more protective of expressional freedoms than the Federal Constitution," in this instance there's no precedent that has to do with the public's access to court proceedings.

Court TV's motion cited the case of Richmond Newspapers v. Virginia as standing for the public's First Amendment right to "observe" trials on television without physically attending the proceedings. But the New York ruling responded to that claim by saying that the Richmond case "merely held that the 'right to attend criminal trials is implicit in the guarantees of the First Amendment'" and that it "articulate (ed) a right to attend trials, not a right to view them on a television screen."

But the court did leave the door open for future change when they recognized the fact that the ban on cameras in New York courts is a matter ultimately determined by the New York Legislature, not the state's courts. They ended their ruling saying, "We also appreciate that this is a matter that can be reviewed by the State Legislature should it decide to do so."

"The courts have always suggested that it's up to the Legislature to change this," Osterreicher said. "In New York the Legislature is the one that enables or prohibits cameras in the courtroom. The problem in New York is that the Legislature can't even pass a budget on time, and they've just retired for the summer without passing a New York State budget for the twentieth year. Given how they can't pass a budget, I can't see them getting together to do anything about this law banning cameras in the court. It's just not on their priority list."

The Court TV case had been filed in New York's Supreme Court, which is the lowest court in the state despite its name. It was then upheld 5-0 by the state's Appellate Division, which is the middle tier of New York's court system. New York's highest court is the Court of Appeals. "Hopefully the Court of Appeals will be willing to hear this case, and hopefully Court TV will file that appeal. But the Court of Appeals can decide not to hear an appeal, and then it gets tough," Osterreicher said. "If they hear the case and uphold the ban as being Constitutional, then it can be appealed to the United States Supreme Court. But if the Court of Appeals refuses to hear the appeal, there are more legal hurdles to leap before the U.S. Supreme Court would be willing to consider this matter." The last time the high court ruled on a case involving cameras in the courtroom was 1981.