Judges turn camera-shy

Orange County judges have a secret: they don't want you to know how they conduct business in their courtrooms. And the decision they recently made to keep cameras in their new courtrooms turned off -- that seems to be a secret, too. "The rumbling is that there is going to be a major issue about some people not wanting to have cameras in the courtroom," one insider says. "Yes, it's `Chief Judge Belvin` Perry. Judges just don't want the public to know how they operate." The controversy has been kept quiet, because those most affected by the decision characteristically don't want to rock the boat. But according to several courthouse insiders familiar with the situation, here's what happened: On April 8 the judges of the 9th District Circuit Court met and decided to keep the cameras in the new Orange County Court- house turned off. At the time, workers already had begun stringing the cable that connects various courtrooms with the offices of prosecutors, public defenders and others, and there was some question about whether the work would be stopped. The cameras -- used for security, educational and efficiency's sake -- had been planned for the building from its conception. County officials had to call a meeting last week between judges and the construction manager to explain what was being built and how it would work. "We sent a representative `to` explain that this is the infrastructure that is being built," says Deputy County Administrator Howard Tipton. "If you don't want to turn it on, that's your issue." The judges will be able to turn off the video and audio feeds to the offices of the public defender and state's attorney, Tipton says, without affecting the feed to the security room. Cameras have been integral to American courtrooms for more than a decade. Usually a single camera looks over the whole room, and several microphones record the audio, which becomes part of the official court record. Prosecutors and public defenders like having a closed-circuit feed into their offices, where attorneys can monitor the action in courts where they may be needed, while doing other chores. Same goes for social workers, financial counselors and most of the other people who make the machinery of justice run smoothly. Video tapes of some trials also make handy teaching tools for young lawyers. Public Defender Joe DuRocher says he was surprised and disheartened by the decision. "No one in the court system has officially requested any input from my office," he says. "I've been told that Judge Perry is going to make an announcement." By press time he had not, and calls to Perry's chambers went unreturned. Orange County actually is behind the curve on cameras in its courts. Hillsborough County has had a working system for almost 10 years, says Gary Metzger, that court's video communications coordinator. "The judge has the switch," he says, "but it isn't very often turned off." In Tampa the feed goes to prosecutors and defenders, plus court clerks and a press office, which allows a direct feed for TV. Sixth District Chief Judge Susan Schaeffer says the system has been relatively non-controversial, and quite helpful. "We do have the right to turn off the audio," she says, "... and I have heard that circuit court never turns the audio off, but county court does sometimes." Metzger confirms that the technology takes some getting used to. "We were thinking about doing the same thing up in Pasco County, and there were some misgivings," he reports. "Of course, they're not as advanced up there as we are down here." Neither, apparently, are we.
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