With this change, Utah will go from having some of the most tightly restricted courtrooms in the country to some of the most open, virtually overnight.
Only 14 states continue to ban television news cameras at trial court proceedings, while Utah is joining 19 other states in allowing video and audio recordings of both civil and criminal cases at the trial level.
The state will join an even more select group that explicitly allows the use of new technologies such as smartphones, tablets and laptops. But using these devices to take photos or record video is still prohibited.
"We live in a different world now," said court spokeswoman Nancy Volmer. "People need their phones and computers to keep in touch with the outside world while in court."
Court administrators hope to increase the public's understanding of the court system by allowing greater public access.
"It's exciting," said Salt Lake City attorney Jeff Hunt, who specializes in media law. "For the first time, the public will be able to actually see and hear what transpires in the courtroom. It will be an unfiltered version of what's actually going on. … This is a huge step for transparency and public accountability."
Making a new rule • The decision to change court rules has been a long time coming, said those involved in the process.
Late last year, the Utah Judicial Council reviewed a yearlong study of technologies in courtrooms. The report outlined courtroom media access in other states and the benefits and potential drawbacks of allowing a more open courtroom. The public was invited to comment.
"Court cases (excluding juveniles cases) are already a matter of public record so why not let the interested parties watch?" wrote Lis Stewart. "There are many misconceptions about the judicial system because people in general do not see it in action."
The council, composed of judges and court administrators, ultimately voted in favor of the rule change by a two-thirds majority.
Hunt served on the research committee, which was created by the council to look into the issue. He pointed to the courts' experience with still photography as the reason for the new rule's quick adoption.
Currently in trial courts, a single still photographer is allowed to shoot pictures of a hearing with a judge's approval. Judges can set restrictions on whether a photographer can take pictures of jurors, witnesses, exhibits or the judge. News organizations then share the photographs.
In appellate courts, still photography and video are allowed with permission.
The rule changes would follow a format nearly identical to what is now used for still photography meaning one camera would shoot video and then distribute it to several media organizations in what is commonly referred to as "pool reporting" by the media.
"The more comfortable [judges] became with still photography, it wasn't a huge jump to incorporate video," Hunt said. "The overwhelming conclusion is that there are no harmful effects in allowing media cameras into the courtroom, that they're not disruptive, that it's a good thing to do."
Controlling the courtroom • Three judges voted against the rule change: 2nd District Judge Glen Dawson, 3rd District Judge Paul Maughan and 4th District Judge David Mortensen.
At the time of the vote, Maughan said he thought the new rule, which presumes recording of a hearing is allowed, limits a judge's control of the courtroom.
"Part of the concern is the trial judge is free to control his or her courtroom in all situations except when a TV camera wants to be there, at which point a judge abdicates to the media," Maughan said. "It's like you're taking away the control of the courtroom at the whim of the media."
This idea of ceding control to media is a big sticking point for courts around the country, and one that touches on concerns of privacy and safety in the nation's courtrooms.
According to the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, a national First Amendment advocacy organization, judges generally fear that television cameras in courtrooms will influence the behavior of attorneys, witnesses or defendants, though there is little proof that they do. Many cite the frenzy of the O.J. Simpson murder trial as evidence for why courtrooms should remain closed.
The new rule will continue to allow judges to order cameras shut off during sensitive cases or in protected testimony, such as that involving children or sexual assault victims. Jurors will not appear on camera.
Mortensen, who said Friday that he voted against removing judges' discretion but believes courtrooms should be as transparent as possible, doubted whether most judges or attorneys will notice more technology in the courtroom.
"Where people will notice it is on the news at night," he said. "Maybe it will seem strange at first, but this is no runaway train. The only difference at the end of the day with having a camera there and having the public there is now a member of a public doesn't have to get into their car and drive to the courthouse to watch a trial."
Smart about phones • But television and still cameras are less of a concern than smartphones.
In this age of split-second communication, Volmer said, the same device people use to make calls can also be used to take photos and record videos or audio. They're harder to see and harder to control.
That's why the Utah courts' decision to include smartphones, tablets, laptops and, by extension, social media in the new rule is so unusual, said Gregg Leslie, the legal defense director for the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press.
Most court systems nationwide have erred on the side of banning smartphones and other personal devices or not issuing a definitive ruling on the issue.
But Volmer said that since people increasingly use social media to stay abreast of breaking news or current events it's important to ensure reporters' access to their cellphones and computers.
Experts noted that in some cases, such as those that involve gang violence or pose a risk of witness intimidation, phones may be banned entirely. Jurors, who are barred from accessing outside information about a case, may be asked to turn off or leave their cellphones behind while serving on highly publicized trials.
Mortensen said keeping cellphones out tends to cause more trouble than allowing them in.
"It's the odd person these days who doesn't have a cellphone on their person," he said. "If we try to keep them from our courtrooms, it's fighting a battle that can never be won. So, instead we embrace the practicalities of our modern world."
The importance of instituting a statewide rule, he said, is to ensure that every courtroom has the same standards, and every courthouse is equally transparent.
"Long term, the more transparent the courts are … it may boost the public's confidence in our judicial process," the judge said. "I think in a broad view, people aren't going to look at a single case. But folks will get the idea that you have a conscientious court system."