JUDGES are often required to make difficult decisions during cases. One facing Cleveland County District Judge Thad Balkman strikes us as a layup.
Balkman has been asked by The Oklahoma Publishing Co., which publishes The Oklahoman and operates NewsOK.com, to let journalists use cameras in his courtroom during the state’s trial against opioid manufacturers. The trial is set to begin a year from now.
The use of cameras during civil trials is not prohibited in Oklahoma. District courts may allow cameras at their discretion, although they generally don’t. This has been the standard for decades — reporters carrying notepads are OK, those carrying cameras are not.
This is an outdated practice that needs to change, not just for the opioid lawsuit but for other cases, too. It’s been more than 100 years since the act of taking a still photograph required a small explosion to occur — today’s cameras, both digital and video, are quiet and unobtrusive. And, they have the potential to provide a perspective that can’t always be related through written accounts.
In OPUBCO’s request, attorney Robert D. Nelon touched on that point. “Without visual images … it is impossible to present a full picture of what has happened in the courtroom,” Nelon wrote.
He also cited a 1981 attorney general’s opinion regarding whether cameras and tape recorders could be barred from meetings of the trustees of a public trust: “Certainly, modern attitudes toward the once assumed disruptive presence of cameras in public meetings has softened, as evidenced by the now widely accepted judicial view that cameras may be used in courtrooms to enhance the public’s accessibility to information about judicial proceedings.”
Attorney General Mike Hunter, who is bringing the case against several opioid manufacturers, supports OPUBCO’s request. In a letter last week to Balkman, Hunter noted that the effects of opioid abuse are being felt across Oklahoma. “Accordingly, all Oklahomans — whether in Elk City or Oklahoma City, Tulsa or Tishomingo — should have the same ability to follow this trial, to stay abreast of the dangers of Defendants’ products, and to learn the details of Defendants’ misconduct,” he wrote.
The issue of cameras in the courtroom remains unsettled in many venues. The U.S. Supreme Court doesn’t allow oral arguments or decision announcements to be televised, live-streamed or photographed. During his confirmation hearings last year, Justice Neil Gorsuch said he was open to the possibility of cameras in the courtroom. That makes him an outlier on the court.