Opinion: Courtroom recordings should be public

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:

  • Taxpayers are paying the court reporter, so it’s not a leap to suggest that taxpayers cover the cost of these recordings. And the recordings should belong to the people who paid for them.
  • Some judges are concerned that their opponents or other citizens might use such recordings to discredit the judge by highlighting inopportune or ill-considered remarks. They have reason to be concerned about that. They should behave and speak in a manner that befits their office, and citizens ought to be able to call them on it when they don’t.
  • Think about the civic value of courtroom video. A skilled producer could piece together a fascinating program or series of programs that would enlighten citizens about their judicial branch. They could even be used in schools as civics lessons, not to mention object lessons. Like: “Hey kid, here, with top-notch production values, is REALLY what happens to you when you break the law!”
  • Such a system does carry risks that the wrong people will exploit the records in question and use them for financial gain, or as a way to sully a neighbor’s reputation. That’s the price of transparency.
  • It can take years for court reporters to prepare transcripts of trials – years when the accused is sitting in prison, waiting for the transcript so they can pursue their appeal. Instantly available records would solve that problem for good. We know that innocent people are sometimes found guilty. This would give them the tools to right that wrong much sooner.
  • Court reporters, who make a good income, feel threatened by efforts to make their tapes public. Some of them worry that their work will be checked – the written transcript vs. the audio tape. Some worry that video records of trials will mean less income for them. That’s the result of technology. Think about it: Georgia has an ancient system that requires someone to type out what’s happening in court in real time? Really? Technological developments can’t be turned back — not in medicine, not in any field, except apparently court reporting.

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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