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As Trump trial looms, push to allow TV cameras in New York courts

BY JEFFERSON SIEGEL | Now that’s must-see TV!

A bill (S.160/A.712) approaching possible passage would finally allow television coverage of courtroom trials in New York State.

Now wait a minute, you might say; you’ve seen trials on television all the time. If you believe that, you’ve watched too much “Law & Order.” Aside from a 10-year trial run in the 1990s, electronic coverage of complete court trials has been banned in the Empire State since the 1930s. The pending bill, sponsored by state Senator Brad Hoylman-Sigal and Assemblymember David Weprin, would finally allow gavel-to-gavel coverage of trials.

Standing just a block from where Donald Trump is expected to be arraigned on Tuesday, Hoylman-Sigal, Weprin and supporters explained the importance of the bill’s passage.

“The public has the right to witness this moment in history,” Hoylman-Sigal proclaimed, referring to Trump’s potential criminal trial.

Currently, New York is just one of two states in the entire country that ban audiovisual recording of trials. The other is Louisiana. And while some judges do allow photography in their courtrooms, it is only for arraignments or brief “control” dates and always up to each judge’s discretion. Complete trials are off the table.

The presence of cameras, once considered disruptive due to formerly requiring bright lights and flash, has evolved to small noiseless cameras requiring no additional lighting or tripods.

“Because of an archaic provision first added to New York law in the 1930s after the Lindbergh kidnapping case,” Hoylman-Sigal explained, “the only people permitted to witness this consequential trial will be those that can squeeze into the courthouse. Every other branch of government allows audiovisual recordings, except our courthouses.”

Weprin has sponsored similar legislation since 2011 and is passionately in support of the current proposal.

“The public has the right to observe judicial proceedings,” he said. “Our legislative sessions in Albany are recorded, as well as our committee hearings. The people of New York are entitled to greater transparency in how our systems of government, law and justice function.”

Weprin’s district is a short distance from where Trump grew up in Jamaica Estates, Queens.

State Senator Brad Hoylman-Sigal and others at the press conference touted the benefits of allowing cameras in the courtroom. (Photo by © Jefferson Siegel)

Dan Novack, chairperson of the New York State Bar Association’s Committee on Media Law and a First Amendment attorney, called New York the least transparent jurisdiction in America.

“Every state that has welcomed [cameras] in the courtroom has kept them,” he said.

Novack recalled how, in the ’90s, the state tested a 10-year program allowing television coverage of trials, “and it ran without incident,” he said. “Not every New Yorker has the time or the ability to get down to court to attend in person. We can’t all be everywhere at once.”

“The case against Donald Trump will be the most-watched case in history,” said Assemblymember Tony Simone. “We all know that our democracy has been tested in the last few years under the man who is finally being held accountable, and our judicial system will also be tested. That’s why we need to let cameras in, to hear the arguments.”

“The public deserves to see how our laws are interpreted, how justice is served, how victims, witnesses and defendants are treated and how New Yorkers’ tax dollars are spent in courts,” Hoylman-Sigal said. “When coverage is restricted to only those present in court, public accountability is compromised.

“The entire country is relying on us to open the doors to our courtrooms for this, what may be the trial of the century,” he added.

Trump’s case will be in New York State Supreme Court.

Federal courthouses forbid audio and visual coverage of any kind, so this legislation would not apply to them. Instead, it would take an act of Congress to allow coverage. For now, scenes in federal courts can only be disseminated by courtroom sketch artists.

Reporters with their notebooks and artists with their sketchpads enjoy unfettered access to court proceedings. The bill’s sponsors hope to add cameras to that list.

As Mark Twain once said, “There are only two forces that can carry light to all corners of the globe…only two…the sun in the heavens and the Associated Press down here.”

With the state budget now several days past due, the legislation’s co-sponsors and supporters hope the measure will be approved along with the budget’s passage. It would be too late to be enacted into law for Trump’s anticipated Tuesday arraignment, however, but could apply for any trial that would begin at least several months from now.

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