Opinion: Courtroom recordings should be public

12:00 p.m Friday, Nov. 10, 2017 Opinion
A courtroom in a Georgia county court. A recent Georgia Supreme Court decision restricts access to recordings of court proceedings. AJC editor Kevin Riley says solutions should be pursued that increase transparency — and public faith — in the court system. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM

The Georgia Supreme Court has ruled that the public doesn’t have a right to recordings that are made of the proceedings in courtrooms around the state.

In a decision it issued on Oct. 30, the court ruled that the public may not obtain or even copy audio recordings of courtroom proceedings that are made by court reporters.

This matter, watched closely by media organizations, has been bubbling for some time.

As the AJC’s Bill Rankin reported, the unanimous decision rejected an attempt by a popular podcast to copy a court reporter’s audiotape of a 2001 murder trial in Floyd County.

The Supreme Court said that a court reporter’s recording is not an official record because it is not filed with the court. But the official trial transcript is filed and can be accessed by the public, the decision noted.

Most stenographers record what’s said during trials as a backup to ensure the accuracy of their transcriptions.

The ruling does not forbid court reporters or judges from sharing recordings of open court proceedings with podcasts or members of the news media. But it gives court officials the right to turn down the requests whenever they want to.

The Georgia First Amendment Foundation called on the state’s Supreme Court to provide a simple remedy — require court reporters to file taxpayer-financed recordings with the court. Given the logic of the court’s ruling, those recordings would then be official court records, open to public access.

It’s important for you to know that the AJC has depended on these kinds of recordings for its own popular podcast series, “Breakdown.” In fact, we are currently working on another season of Breakdown, and guess what? The court reporter has refused to allow us access to the recordings made at the trial.

As journalists, we’re compelled to respect and follow the decisions of our state’s highest court.

But I have to agree with the AJC’s Chris Joyner, who wrote:

“It’s the kind of decision that crashes against the rocks of common sense. Citizens have no right to the recorded sounds of their government at work, but they are welcome to the less-accurate translation typed out at great cost by a court reporter days or months later?”

By the way, the video of oral arguments on this question of whether audio from Georgia courts is public is available on demand on the Supreme Court’s own website.

We shouldn’t turn this into a dispute involving the media, as some will be tempted to do. The media serves as the surrogate for the public at large on his kind of issue.

Instead, consider:

The Georgia court system should adapt, not obstruct. And the Supreme Court’s availability of video in this case gives us an example.

It makes a lot more sense to make video records of court proceedings. That way, you’d a have a visual record, and an audio record. Then, if someone required a written transcript – such as defendants and their lawyers making an appeal – they could pay to have that done.

Catalog those video records online, make them accessible.

Of course, this would take massive investment by the state over time, but it would be worth it.

Because it would create transparency, which has to be the hallmark of the justice system. When the courts have an opportunity to help the public understand what happens in a courtroom, they should seize that opportunity, not try to wriggle out from under it.

The American concept of justice depends, more than anything else, on a simple proposition: the people must be able to trust their courts. At a time when even our president likes to criticize court decisions, that trust is at a premium.

Given the law’s reliance on precedent and rules, the state Supreme Court itself might be in the best position to quickly improve things, by issuing a rule change requiring public access to recordings of court proceedings.

If that doesn’t happen, the Legislature should step in, change the law, and bring Georgia’s courts into the 21st century. That way, citizens can have faith in our state’s justice system.

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