INDIANAPOLIS — The Indiana Supreme Court has rejected a request to loosen the rules of a pilot program that allows cameras into local courtrooms. Press-access advocates said the move will require redoubled efforts to generate test cases before the project's end.
The Indiana Broadcasters Association sent a letter to the court in January, asking the justices to amend the program's rules to give trial court judges sole discretion on whether to permit cameras in their courtrooms because only five test cases had been recorded since the project's July 2006 launch.
But the Supreme Court refused to change the rules, which require consent from all parties involved in a case — including attorneys on both sides — before journalists can bring recording equipment into a courtroom.
"We gave this lengthy consideration, but we have concluded that it is best to continue the pilot as it was initially approved," Chief Justice Randall T. Shepard wrote in a May 16 letter to the broadcasters' group.
Project participants had argued that the lack of test cases would prevent the court from adequately evaluating the program, which is slated to end Dec. 31. But Supreme Court spokesman David Remondini said evaluating the level of consent would be part of the court's assessment.
"The pilot program isn't being evaluated only on the operation of camera and other equipment in the courts," Remondini said. "It also has to do with the acceptance of cameras in the courtroom by the legal community."
The test project permits up to one video camera, one still camera and three audio tape recorders in a courtroom. News organizations cannot record certain people, including minors, victims of sex-related offenses and police informants, and must agree to share coverage.
Critics of the project worry that cameras will disrupt court proceedings, affect trial outcomes, encourage courtroom theatrics or taint potential jury pools.
Daniel Byron, an attorney for the Indiana Broadcasters Association, said project coordinators would work to gain access to a broad range of cases, not just high-profile ones, during the remaining seven months of the pilot.
"I think if we redouble our efforts we have an opportunity yet to prove the worthiness of the program," Byron said.
Pool coordinators said they hoped to gain access to any court proceedings, even those that would not end up on the air, for the sake of increasing the number of test cases.
"We'll see it through and we'll try to establish what we feel is a positive track record of performance from the court's point of view," said Randy Wheeler, news director at WIKY-TV in Evansville and news-pool coordinator for Vanderburgh and Warrick counties. "It's going to cost us some people power, but is it worth it? I'd say so, in the long run."
But Kevin Finch, the news director at WISH-TV of Indianapolis and media coordinator for a Marion County court, said 20 requests to cover proceedings in that court were denied during March.
More than 350 requests have been denied since the start of the project. In most cases, criminal-defense attorneys said their clients did not want to be photographed or filmed.
"We just want a few attorneys to see that justice can be done that it could be compatible with a small camera at the back of the room," Finch said.
Most states allow cameras some level of access to courtrooms. Journalists have been allowed to use cameras to cover hearings before the Indiana Supreme Court and the state appeals court since the mid-1990s.