Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Courts allow photographs of documents

Published in the Portland Phoenix

Back in September, we told you that a Maine judge had issued a secret, unwritten order barring people from taking pictures of court documents (see "Speak Now, or Forever Pay for Copies," by Jeff Inglis, September 28). The practice, a popular tactic among reporters and members of the public alike to avoid the expense of buying official copies (at $2 for the first page and $1 for each additional page), had been permitted by court officials for more than five years. Last week, a memo went out from state-court administrator Ted Glessner to all Maine court clerks and their staffs re-authorizing the practice.

There has been no formal change of policy, but that too is in the works, according to Maine Chief Justice Leigh Saufley, who says the court system expects to take another two months to finalize new rules regarding using cameras in courtrooms during proceedings. The two topics are related because the no-cameras-in-courtrooms rule at the moment bars cameras from entering courthouse buildings at all, which would obviously prevent taking pictures of paperwork.

In the meantime, regarding the specific act of photographing documents, there will be “an internal order that tells everybody it’s okay,” Saufley says.

“It’s perfectly appropriate for people to use cameras to take photographs of documents,” she says, noting that existing rules — and the ones under consideration to replace them — bar people from photographing only participants in a trial, including judges, witnesses, attorneys, and defendants, without the judge’s prior written permission.

The larger problem is that “every single cell phone sold today has a camera in it,” Saufley says — and many laptop computers, too. Cell phones, cameras, and laptop computers are banned from the federal courthouse in Portland (though laptops are allowed for a “privileged few,” such as attorneys working on cases, according to federal-courthouse staff).

Saufley says the Maine courts have a tradition of being more open to electronics than the federal courts. (Also, the federal limits are at least partly offset by Internet access to court filings, which are not available for state-court cases.)

But while people can again bring cameras into state courthouses for the purposes of photographing documents, and Saufley appears unenthusiastic about banning cell phones and laptops from courtrooms, using cameras during trials and other court proceedings will likely continue to be restricted.

Court officials have talked to members of the state’s television media about their needs, and the state’s advisory Committee on Media and Courts is at work on crafting rules that would, in effect, state that “we don’t want to stop people from bringing cameras into the courtroom,” Saufley says, but “you can’t use cameras” there without advance permission.