Between the Lines

Between the Lines By David Lias August 29 was an historic day for both South Dakota's judicial system and members of the press who cover it.

It was the first day that the South Dakota Supreme Court allowed cameras in the courtroom.

The court unanimously approved this experiment a few weeks ago, after three years of discussion between the press and the Supreme Court.

We feel it's about time that South Dakota finally joins every other state in the nation by allowing cameras in courtrooms. The first use of cameras on Aug. 29-30 is a high point for journalism in South Dakota. Ours is the last state to adopt some level of camera usage in the courtroom.

Mississippi opened its courtrooms to cameras in April. The rules adopted for use in South Dakota mirror those of states that have allowed cameras for years.

Ironically, it took very little on the media's part to have a big impact. Only two video and two still cameras are allowed in the Supreme Court chambers.

Reporters may use small recorders that are unobtrusive as long as tapes are not changed when the court is in session.

Likewise, photographers cannot change film during oral arguments. They also must stay in a designated area.

Ultimately, we'd like to see cameras allowed in all courts in the state, and not be limited to just the Supreme Court. That idea may not be popular in all quarters, but we hope we can help the public understand why opening courtrooms up to greater media coverage is so important.

We can think of several reasons for letting citizens see and hear what goes on in our courts via cameras and television coverage:

* Good government. This is an issue of openness and access, both vital to a thriving democracy.

* Confidence. All that most people know of courtrooms comes from TV shows like Perry Mason or Matlock. Actually seeing what goes on in a real courtroom will help develop confidence in our judicial system.

* It's a local issue. The South Dakota Supreme Court must accept every case. It can not pick and choose. The chances of the court hearing a case from local communities in the state are very good.

* We're last. South Dakota is the last state to allow cameras in the courtroom. With the Supreme Court session Aug. 29-30, we joined the other 49 states � most of which also allow cameras in other courts, not just the Supreme Court. There is a long history on which we can draw to head off any problems. In fact, there are no real problems in other states.

What about O.J. Simpson? Well, what about the Florida ballot recount? What the public � and judiciary � saw in the O.J. Simpson case was what happens when a judge loses control. Remember, the justices (in the Supreme Court) and judges (if camera coverage is expanded to other courts) still are in control of their own courtrooms. We saw the difference in the Florida ballot recount, where, regardless of our feelings on the issue, we could tell first-hand what was happening.

Why expand cameras to lower courts? While the Supreme Court handles cases from all over South Dakota, it is the lower courts that have much more direct impact on our readers' lives. Our readers are much more in tune with local cases. Will this lead to a media feeding frenzy in courts? We'll still cover the same cases we've always covered. This just adds a new dimension � visual. Nothing else changes.

What if there are problems? This is a trial project before the Supreme Court. It will constantly be assessed by both the media and the justices. If there are problems, a cooperative effort by South Dakota media and the courts can solve them.

Tena Haraldson, Associated Press bureau chief in Sioux Falls, believes introducing cameras in the circuit courts is a natural progression. We realize there are some challenges to make circuit court camera coverage a reality. It will involve totally different issues than those that were successfully worked out to allow Supreme Court coverage.

How do you protect minors that appear in court, for example? The chances of increased sensationalism and establishing a prejudice toward one party or another could be greater. We believe, however, that solutions to these problems can eventually be found in South Dakota, just as they have been in other states.

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