SAN FRANCISCO - After a rebuff from the U.S. Supreme Court, San Francisco's federal judges are again proposing to allow cameras in their courtrooms to videotape selected civil trials, if both parties in the case agree.
The San Francisco-based Northern District of California has applied to a federal judicial committee to take part in a pilot project that would allow courts to record civil trials for delayed posting on the Internet.
The U.S. Judicial Conference approved the project in September and said it would allow participation by 150 federal judges, about one-fourth of the nation's total. The starting date hasn't been determined.
The purpose is "to allow public access to real court proceedings, as opposed to Hollywood's version," said James Ware, the Northern District's chief judge. He said he is wary about cameras' possible effect on trial participants but is willing to allow them in his courtroom.
"We're trying to accommodate the public's right to know what's going on in one of its public institutions, but also the parties' interest in not having the process invade unnecessarily their personal privacy," Ware said.
In a survey of the district's 18 judges, 13 were willing to participate, three were opposed and two did not respond, Ware said.
Courts in most states, including California, allow cameras in some proceedings, but federal courts have largely excluded them. Federal appeals courts in San Francisco and New York telecast some of their hearings, but the Supreme Court has barred cameras in its chambers and argued that they would be disruptive.
The high court intervened in January 2010 after then-Chief U.S. District Judge Vaughn Walker ordered video recording of the trial over Proposition 8, California's ban on same-sex marriage, for closed-circuit telecasting to audiences in other federal courthouses and possible future posting on the Internet.
The Supreme Court said Walker had failed to allow enough time for public comment on the idea. The court also agreed with Prop. 8's sponsors that the prospect of a telecast could intimidate witnesses.
Walker, who retired in February, kept a copy of the recording and recently showed a three-minute excerpt to a college audience. Prop. 8's sponsors contend he acted illegally and have asked the appeals court to retrieve and seal the video.
The proposed video project would allow a trial to be recorded only if both parties and the judge agreed. It would apply to jury as well as non-jury trials in civil cases, although jurors would not be shown on camera.
The proposal is a step in the right direction, said Thomas Burke, a lawyer for media organizations.
"We're advocating openness no matter how it's done," he said.