WASHINGTON — A computer and an Internet connection may soon be all that are needed for anyone to hear closing arguments in a corruption trial or listen to the testimony of a mob turncoat.
The federal judiciary approved a pilot program this week to make free audio recordings of court proceedings available online. Although a court’s participation in the program is voluntary, U.S. District Judge Thomas F. Hogan, the executive committee chairman of the policy-making Judicial Conference, said he expects the system ultimately will be widely used.
“I do hope the Judicial Conference efforts will be looked at as an attempt to see if we can make court proceedings more inclusive and transparent to people,” Hogan said in an interview.
News organizations and open-government groups applauded the decision, which will allow the files to be played on television and radio and posted on Internet news sites and blogs.
At present, recording devices and cameras are prohibited in all federal courtrooms. However, in some high-profile cases the Supreme Court releases audio recordings of oral arguments. Some federal trial courts, such as the one in Philadelphia, sell daily audio recordings of hearings.
The pilot program, set to launch in the next few months, would put those recordings on the court’s electronic-records database for download.
“It gets the judges accustomed to the idea that electronic coverage can be beneficial,” said Barbara Cochran, president of the Radio and Television News Directors Association. “It makes storytelling more accurate and more compelling.”
Cochran’s organization supports allowing cameras in federal courts, something some Supreme Court justices have adamantly opposed. All states have laws allowing some camera access to courts but, in practice, the policies vary. States such as Florida, for instance, routinely allow them while others such as Minnesota allow them only if all parties consent.
Hogan said the audio pilot program was not a step toward allowing cameras. Although that will be the normal practice someday, Hogan said the movement to open state courts to cameras was hurt by the recent Florida case over custody of former Playboy playmate Anna Nicole Smith’s corpse.
In that case, Judge Larry Seidlin was accused of showboating for the camera. On live, national television, he discussed everything from his wife to his morning swim, then sobbed as he issued his ruling.
“It was not the dignified judicial proceeding you’d expect in a courtroom,” Hogan said.
He described the pilot program as a compromise between allowing no recording and turning the court into a set for a TV show. Attorney Nathan Siegel, who represented more than a dozen news organizations last month and won the release of former White House aide I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby’s grand jury tapes, agreed.
“As technology becomes more pervasive and access to recorded material becomes more a part of daily life, the courts are moving with the times,” Siegel said.
Hogan, the chief judge in the Washington, D.C., federal court, made news in the Libby case by creating a media room with a closed-circuit video feed for the trial. He said the response was positive and that he received no complaints about the broadcast of the Libby tapes.
With so many high-profile cases, the Washington courthouse is a good testing ground for the audio program, Hogan said. He said he does not yet know how many judges will sign up here or nationwide.
He said judges will have discretion over when to turn the recorder off, such as during an FBI informant’s testimony or when a rape victim takes the stand. Ronald K.L. Collins, a scholar at the First Amendment Center, said lawyers will haggle over when that’s appropriate.
“Inevitably there’s going to be a U.S. attorney who objects on secrecy grounds (or) a defense counsel who objects on prejudicial grounds or invasion of privacy. There’s going to be a victim who objects,” Collins said. “Those determinations will be made on a case-by-case basis, but the default position is open.”