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Blog: #OpenNYCourts begins new phase

by Sean Carroll, #OpenNYCourts

This blog is part of an ongoing effort by 13WHAM to convince New York judges and lawmakers to allow cameras inside the courtroom.

Rochester, N.Y. - Our efforts to #OpenNYCourts is about to enter a new phase, and I'm willing to call "Phase 1" a success based on what many of us have learned in the last year or so.

Many of you have followed our collective efforts. Rochester media outlets have banded together in pursuit of transparency and accountability in the court system. Lawyers, prosecutors, judges, clerks, citizens and jurors have engaged us in this conversation (some by choice, some wishing they hadn't), and at the very least I think we can agree it's been a healthy and long overdue conversation.

"Phase 1" could best be described as a "research and information-gathering" process. Reporters, from 13WHAM and other Rochester media outlets, have increasingly tested the court system with numerous requests for more access to public proceedings and records. Judges have fielded requests for still and video camera access; they've been asked to open arraignments that occur in a hospital room; they've been engaged and educated on issues of technology like why an iPad or smartphone is essentially a "reporter's notebook" in 2014. The use and value of social media applications such as Twitter from inside courtrooms have also been debated. In one recent case, five Rochester media outlets joined forces and hired a lawyer to compel the release of evidence and to demonstrate how a judge improperly closed his courtroom and rendered decisions in secret.

The results have been interesting. We've detailed some of these "case studies" on this page and on Twitter (#OpenNYCourts) and there will be more findings revealed here in the coming weeks. We've seen judges evolve their positions on public access. We've exposed a lack of understanding of public access laws and a hypocritical application/interpretation of those laws. We've seen court clerks set a great example for the release of public records and we've seen others demonstrate a complete lack of knowledge about one of their fundamental duties. At times I've seen how court security personnel and deputies better understand court access laws than the judge sitting at the bench!

All of this brings us to "Phase 2" of this #OpenNyCourts initiative - changing the law. Or should I say, simply pass a law. Any law.

It's time. The ambiguity and uncertainty we've exposed throughout this community's court system is a direct result of failed leadership in Albany. Nearly 40 states now have laws on the books that allow cameras in court and govern a wide variety of access issues.

Currently, New York's only applicable law is a loosely worded piece of legislation that dates back to 1952. And by the way, it is essentially a law that restricts access to court proceedings, not a law that grants access.

Your governor - a lawyer and former Attorney General, ironically - has failed to bring forward a proposal that would at last grant citizens access and oversight to the judicial branch of government. Your lawmakers - many of them lawyers, like Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver - have failed for nearly two decades to advance a bill that would offer your judges, prosecutors, clerks, and neighbors a better understanding of what access to public court proceedings is acceptable, legal and expected.

It is 2014, a statewide election year, and it is time for New York to open its court system.

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