TV news cameras may soon have a place in Utah's courtrooms.
The Utah Judicial Council on Monday approved in concept a proposal on technology including news cameras, tablets and smartphones in the state's courts. The issue will now go to a council subcommittee, which could have a draft of the new rules as early as next month.
"I think this is a big step forward toward the public gaining increased access to what transpires in the courtroom," said Salt Lake City attorney Jeff Hunt, who worked with other attorneys and judges for a year to study the issue. "I think it's a watershed moment for access to the courts" in Utah.
Utah is one of 15 states that currently does not allow television news cameras to record trial court proceedings. If the new rule is approved, the state would join 19 others in allowing video and audio recording of criminal and civil cases at the trial level.
Currently in the trial courts, a single still photographer is allowed to photograph a hearing with a judge's approval. Restrictions can also be made regarding whether a photographer can take pictures of jurors, witnesses, exhibits or the judge. News organizations then share the photographs.
In the appellate courts, still photography and video are allowed with permission.
The proposed rule changes would follow a format nearly identical to what is now used for still photography, officials said.
The Judicial Council, however, seemed divided on the use of phones and other portable electronic devices in the state's courthouses and courtrooms.
The Board of District Court Judges originally recommended that electronic devices be banned from courthouses, except for use by attorneys, court employees, law enforcement officers and those with written permission from a judge.
Supreme Court Justice Jill Parrish, who worked on the yearlong technology study, said ultimately that was not feasible.
"As these things become more pervasive, just trying to prohibit them from the courtroom at all becomes completely unworkable," Parrish said.
The proposed rule would instead allow devices inside courthouses across the state, but give judges "broad discretion" regarding whether to allow the use of smartphones and other devices in the courtrooms.
Third District Judge Randall Skanchy, representing the Board of District Court Justices, said he was concerned about "decorum and safety." Court officials said they worried cellphones could be used to text testimony to other witnesses or to take photographs of jurors, judges and witnesses.
"Asking the bailiff to monitor the content of someone's electronic device is an impossible task," Skanchy said. "It simply cannot be done."
Hunt said he hoped judges would not impose a blanket ban on devices.
"The hope is they will see the wisdom of regulating conduct as opposed to the possibility that someone could break the rule," he said.