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PCN allowed to tape Pennsylvania Supreme Court proceedings

| Tuesday, Aug. 16, 2011

Next month, people will be able to watch from the comfort of their living rooms as lawyers argue before the Pennsylvania Supreme Court the fate of two people on death row.

The Supreme Court announced Monday that for the first time in its history, it will allow television cameras to record oral arguments for broadcast later.

"I'd like to see this as an educational tool so that the citizens we work for can see what the third branch of government does," Supreme Court Chief Justice Ronald D. Castille said. "To some extent, we're mysterious, handing rulings down on high. Citizens will get to see the real work of court and see how it potentially affects their lives."

The change does not affect the state's ban on any recording of criminal proceedings in lower courts. The state allows cameras in nonjury civil proceedings.

The Supreme Court set some restrictions on the recordings.

The Pennsylvania Cable Network, or PCN, will not be allowed to broadcast the arguments live, and it must record and air hearings from beginning to end. The network will not be permitted to record conferences between attorneys or among justices.

Proceedings that have been sealed won't be recorded. The high court can limit or stop coverage "when necessary to protect the rights of the parties or to assure the orderly conduct of the proceedings," according to its agreement with PCN, which has been broadcasting arguments before Commonwealth Court and the state Superior Court for several years.

The broadcasts will begin Sept. 13; Castille said the court, aside from the death penalty cases, will hear arguments on a variety of issues including product liabilities, an appeal from a decision by the state's Open Records department and whether the state should pay back $600 million to its medical liability compensation fund.

"Chief Justice Castille and all the justices are to be commended for their leadership in taking this historic step," PCN President Brian Lockman said in a prepared statement. "They are giving Pennsylvanians the opportunity to see the Supreme Court performing its duties as it has since 1684."

Castille said the court has considered the matter for nearly a decade, but "there were justices who were resistant to it. They weren't into modern technology."

As the bench evolved, replacements "were more attuned to modern times," he said.

"It's more important for us to videotape our court. There's a need for transparency in government."

University of Pittsburgh law professor John M. Burkoff called the change a nod to modern times.

"There are cameras everywhere. You're being watched on the street. I think that there is a generational tilt toward more openness, and cameras in the courtroom is essentially inevitable."

Allegheny County Court Administrator Raymond Billotte said he didn't believe the door will necessarily swing open to cameras in local court proceedings.

He pointed out that in Supreme Court appeals, only attorneys appear before the seven-justice panel. In criminal cases, witnesses, victims and jurors appear before a judge.

Castille said the court conducted two days of test recordings this year, though they were not broadcast. Justices looked at the recordings and did not find any problems.

"After a while, you didn't even realize the session was being taped," Castille said.

He added that there was little concern that attorneys would play to the cameras.

"It's a matter of grace, so generally, attorneys are well-behaved," he said.

Attorney James Ross of Ambridge, who has argued before the state Supreme Court, said experienced attorneys shouldn't find the cameras a distraction.

"This isn't an earth-shattering decision," Ross said. "It's not going to make that much of a difference. People aren't going to be interested in watching, except for critical cases, which is rare."

But Ross lamented the fact that the U.S. Supreme Court shuns cameras, citing Thurgood Marshall's desegregation arguments in the landmark Brown v. Board of Education case.

"Just think how important that is to our history, and all of that was lost," he said.

Additional Information:

To watch

The Pennsylvania Cable Network, which will begin broadcasting Pennsylvania Supreme Court proceedings on a tape-delay basis on Sept. 13, is available on Comcast Cable channel 100 or 110 in many parts of Western Pennsylvania.

Check listings for other cable and satellite providers. PCN reaches 3.3 million homes statewide.

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