'Running of the interns' highlights why federal courts should be open to cameras

Published June 2023

Eric Robinson
By Eric P. Robinson, USC School of Journalism and Mass Communications

“On your mark. Get set. Go!”

These words were not actually called out in the federal courtroom where former president Donald Trump was arraigned on June 13. But that courtroom was effectively the starting line in a relay race of high school students hired by CNN to report on the arraignment, after Magistrate Judge Jonathan Goodman denied a media request to allow pooled camera access, or release an audio recording after the proceeding. Goodman also decided to exclude all electronic devices from the courthouse entirely.

This created hurdles to covering the proceedings, which CNN overcame by a complex logistical gameplan. The network hired local high school students to run handwritten notes from CNN reporters in the overflow room where reporters were able to view a live video feed of the arraignment to fellow students stationed at the two payphones (!) in the courthouse. Those payphones can make only local calls (!), so the highschoolers called a CNN production assistant’s personal cell phone—with a local Miami area code—located in an RV that CNN parked near the courthouse. A CNN regional director answered the phone and conveyed the bits of information to CNN’s Washington, D.C. bureau, where it was cleared for air and relayed to the anchors.

This Rube Goldberg-like setup to deliver the news of Trump’s arraignment is reminiscent of how media covered U.S. Supreme Court decisions before the court belatedly entered the internet era. Until just a few years ago, the court released its decisions as paper copies delivered to the press room on the ground floor of the court’s building. This led to a ritual called the “Running of the Interns” in which interns for TV news outlets covering the court would race to get the printed decisions to the news reporters waiting in front of the court to go immediately on-air with the rulings. The tradition disappeared when the court began releasing its decisions by posting them online.

The U.S. Supreme Court has been clear that the Constitution requires that criminal court proceedings should be generally open to the public and the press; and lower courts have extended this principles to most civil trials. The court added that closure is permissible only when absolutely necessary, and that such the closure must be limited only to what is necessary to protect the specific concern.

Access to courts by still and video cameras has a more checkered history. While most state courts now allow audio-visual coverage of their courts, the federal courts maintain archaic rules that still bar regarding still and video cameras from virtually all federal courtrooms, and even from many federal courthouse buildings entirely.

Here in South Carolina, cameras are permitted in trial courts by seeking permission of the presiding judge in advance.

The federal courts have held two “tests” allowing video cameras in federal trial courtrooms: from 1991 to 1994, and again from in 2011-2015. Despite generally positive reviews from both judges and attorneys involved in the experiments, after both tests the Federal Judicial Center, which sets policy for the federal courts, announced that it would not recommend any changes to the general policy that still and video cameras are banned from most federal courtrooms.

This is despite the inherent value of media access to trials as a means of showing the public exactly how the courts work, and how the verdicts in trials are reached. The importance of such coverage—properly managed by the court to protect the party’s rights and the court’s decorum, as in the recent Alex Murdaugh trial—has been shown in case after case.

Such access is particularly important in high-profile, politically-charged cases such as the criminal cases currently pending against Trump. The only way to blunt the inevitable claims that the trial is “rigged” is to have an open process that can be scrutinized by the press and the public.

The federal courts should be open the cameras, and the silly, archaic tradition of the “running of the interns” should finally reach the finish line.

Eric P. Robinson focuses on media and internet law as associate professor at the USC School of Journalism and Mass Communication and in an “of counsel” position at Fenno Law in Charleston / Mount Pleasant. He has worked in media law for more than 25 years and is admitted to legal practice in New York and New Jersey and before the U.S. Supreme Court. This column is for educational purposes only; it does not constitute legal advice. Any opinions are his own, not necessarily those of his employers.

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