By Anne Lowe

OPEN COURTS – The California Newspaper Publishers Association (CNPA), Los Angeles Times, Associated Press and New York Times Co. have issued a “wholehearted” endorsement of suggested changes to court access policies that would improve its relations with the news media.

A 55-page report from the California Judicial Council's Bench-Bar-Media (BBM) Committee recommends nearly a dozen changes to current policies that would update and create rules for issues such as recording devices in court, the issuance of gag orders and increasing public notice of applications to seal court records, CNPA reports to its members.

At the Los Angeles Times’ invitation, CNPA has joined the Times, Associated Press and New York Times Co. and filed a letter that wholeheartedly endorses all the BBM Committee’s suggested rule and policy changes. The letter focuses most on the proposals to create a presumption in favor of allowing cameras in the courts and to establish strict standards for evaluating the constitutionality of gag orders. 

The 20-page letter also argues in support of a policy to require reasonable public notice of applications to seal records and, briefly, for the hiring of regional public information officers to help address conflicts between the media and courts at an early stage. . .

Judges representing the Los Angeles Superior Court and Sacramento Superior Court filed comments that are critical of the BBM Committee recommendations.  The judges’ comments questioned whether the composition of the committee was representative of all the interested groups, its procedures for adopting recommendations, and the need for the proposals. 

On the cameras in the courts proposal, the Los Angeles Courts said the presumption of access would “diminish the authority and responsibility of the courts to assure the integrity of the proceedings.”  ? ?The statewide BBM is chaired by Associate Justice Carlos R. Moreno of the California Supreme Court.

The statewide BBM committee . . . includes appellate court justices, superior court judges, attorneys specializing in the First Amendment, a prosecutor, a criminal defense attorney, journalists, an academic, a superior court executive officer, and a superior court public information officer.? 

Highlights of the report include:

Cameras in Court: Amend rule 1.150 of the California Rules of Court to provide an explicit presumption that cameras and other recording devices are allowed in the courtroom unless sufficient reasons exist to prohibit or limit their use. The recommendation also calls for judges to make specific findings to prohibit or limit the use of cameras and other recording devices.? 

Gag Orders: Adopt a uniform statewide rule similar to those governing ?orders sealing records and consistent with the opinion in Hurvitz v. Hoefflin (2000) 84 Cal.App.4th 1232. That ruling, among other things, requires a specific finding of a legitimate competing interest that overrides the public’s right of access and justifies some form of gag order. The ruling also limits the scope of any gag order to the narrowest restraint and shortest time period necessary to protect the identified overriding interest.

Orders Sealing Records: Develop a rule of court that requires all courts to post notice of any application for, or entry of, an order sealing a record on their local websites within five court business days after filing or entry. If that is not possible, the proposed rule would require that such a notice be sent to the Judicial Council for publication on the judicial branch’s website within the same five court business days required for posting online.

Educational Programs: Support creation of educational content and programs to enhance relationships and cross-communication among the bench, bar, media, court staff, and public.

Judicial Officer Training: Develop training for judges and justices on how to present the meaning or substance of court decisions in a way that can be easily understood by the media and the public.  The Bench-Bar-Media Committee also drafted proposals to address the need to explain legal terminology to the public and media; create online training materials for court staff and judges; develop regional media access plans; and make regional public information officers available to assist the courts.

The report also recommends that CNPA representatives meet with court reporter unions and associations to develop a special protocol and pricing formula that would allow court reporters to prepare limited partial transcripts for use by the media in preparing accurate accounts of court proceedings for publication.