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Crime & Justiceby Fern Shen3:16 pmJan 3, 20230

Hearing set Friday on Maryland Supreme Court rule to cut off public access to court recordings

The proposed change is a counterpunch by the state judiciary to a federal court ruling that Maryland’s courthouse broadcast ban violates the First Amendment

Above: The room where the Supreme Court of Maryland sits in Annapolis. (mdcourts.gov)

Last month, a federal judge struck down Maryland’s ban on broadcasting legally obtained recordings of court hearings, a victory for journalists and transparency advocates that may, it turns out, be short-lived.

The ruling by U.S. District Judge Richard D. Bennett meant that a person could no longer be charged with contempt for “broadcasting” court footage if that footage was lawfully provided by the courts.

(Members of the public have been able to request audio recordings of court hearings and receive copies of them at the discretion of a judge.)

But now – responding quickly to undercut Bennett’s ruling – the Maryland Supreme Court is proposing an emergency rules change that would mean no member of the press or public is allowed to have a copy of official recordings of state criminal cases.

“This is an attempt to explicitly curtail the rights upheld by last month’s ruling, which affirmed that if the court makes something public, the First Amendment means that people are free to use it or distribute it as they please,” said Baltimore journalist Brandon Soderberg.

“The courts do not want this transparency to the community, and have decided that their response will be to not make recordings public at all,” he told The Brew.

“The courts do not want this transparency to the community”  – journalist Brandon Soderberg.

In 2019, the Georgetown Institute for Constitutional Advocacy and Protection and Maryland Volunteer Lawyers for the Arts challenged the broadcast ban on behalf of Soderberg and fellow journalist Baynard Woods, who were putting together a documentary on the Gun Trace Task Force corruption scandal.

The other plaintiffs in the suit were activist Quiana Johnson and the nonprofits Open Justice Baltimore and Baltimore Action Legal Team.

Since 1981, when Maryland banned the broadcasting of criminal proceedings, efforts to modify aspects of the policy have been unsuccessful.

While other states have increasingly moved towards transparency, locking in Maryland’s ban, as the state Supreme Court proposes, “would make the state an extreme outlier among court systems nationwide,” Soderberg said.

Deadline for Comments

The emergency rules change was recommended by Maryland’s Standing Committee on Rules of Practice and Procedure, according to the Daily Record.

The committee report cited concerns that audio recordings could be used to share sensitive information or to intimidate crime witnesses.

The proposed change was announced on December 14, giving the press, community members and advocates only three weeks, including the holidays, to respond.

• The Supreme Court will hold a virtual open meeting on the matter this Friday (January 6) at 2:30 p.m. Find the webcast here.

NOTE: Those wishing to submit a written comment on the proposed change must send an email by January 4 – tomorrow – to rules@mdcourts.gov. Anybody who wishes to speak at the Friday meeting should call this number: 410-260-1500.

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