Pa. Supreme Court in Phila. for the first recording of its proceedings

Pennsylvania Supreme Court Chief Justice Ronald D. Castille and former U.S. Sen. Arlen Specter chat in Old City Hall before the court's first video-recorded session.
Pennsylvania Supreme Court Chief Justice Ronald D. Castille and former U.S. Sen. Arlen Specter chat in Old City Hall before the court's first video-recorded session. (CLEM MURRAY / Staff Photographer)
Posted: September 14, 2011

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court used a historic venue at Independence National Historical Park on Tuesday to herald a new era of judicial transparency in which all the high court's proceedings will be recorded and later shown on cable TV.

Convening at Old City Hall, where the U.S. Supreme Court held sessions from 1791 to 1800, the state's highest court heard six civil appeals before an audience mostly of lawyers, along with a few park rangers and interested citizens.

But it was not exactly prime-time drama, and even Chief Justice Ronald D. Castille said that viewers might consider sitting down with a "strong cup of coffee" to get through the oral arguments, which involved nuanced questions of law.

Noting that the Pennsylvania court also held sessions at the landmark from 1790 until 1802, Castille said it felt good for the court to be home.

"It's really interesting to be in a courtroom that we actually sat in 209 years ago," said the chief justice, who, fittingly, wore a crimson tie decorated with the signatures of Thomas Jefferson and other founding fathers.

The special session also was geared toward marking National Constitution Week, commemorating the creation of the nation's time-honored legal framework, which was drafted in September 1787.

During a break in the proceedings, Castille said it was a thrill to be back in the historic courtroom. In the early days of the court - the nation's oldest Supreme Court - he said, three justices presided in Philadelphia, while two others "rode horseback" across the state for other sessions.

"That was like frontier justice," said Castille.

The state Supreme Court joins the state's two other appellate courts, Superior Court and Commonwealth Court, in having oral arguments televised on the Pennsylvania Cable Network (PCN), the state's version of C-Span.

Tuesday's session was due to be broadcast in its entirety Tuesday night.

But the Pennsylvania high court, which meets in weeklong sessions about six times a year, has yet to allow trials to be broadcast. So PCN viewers shouldn't, for example, expect to see anything like the recent Florida trial of Casey Anthony. And no still photographs are permitted during any Pennsylvania court sessions.

Most states allow cameras in some proceedings, but some have embraced the idea more than others. And the specter of the O.J. Simpson murder trial in the mid-1990s caused many judges to balk at having trials broadcast.

The U.S. Supreme Court bars cameras of any type from its proceedings, and only two federal appeals courts allow argument sessions to be taped.

Some judges have embraced the notion of providing greater access to courts.

New Jersey, for example, has been allowing cameras to photograph and electronically record trials and appellate arguments since 1984, and state Supreme Court arguments are now streamed live through the state judiciary's website.

Castille said he could envision a time when trials in Pennsylvania also would be broadcast - but with certain limitations. "It would have to be tightly controlled," he said.

At Old City Hall on Tuesday, the justices wrestled with appeals focusing on several issues, including aviation law, a product-liability case involving the diet-drug combination fen-phen, and an open-records law appeal.

Two big lights cast a warm glow over the courtroom, while two cameras silently recorded the proceedings.

Lynn Marks, executive director of Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts, said broadcasting the court's oral arguments would enable the public to see the courts in action.

"It's very important to learn how they function," said Marks, who watched part of Tuesday's session.

Castille said he hoped the appellate broadcasts would enlighten people about his court and the law.

People may be attracted to the drama of O.J. Simpson or Anthony, he said, but appellate arguments are a bit drier. So while what people will see if they tune in may not be the most exciting, he said, "it is the real thing."


Contact staff writer Emilie Lounsberry at elounsberry@phillynews.com.

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