February 2, 2012
By Jacob Combs
The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals just filed an opinion overturning a district court’s previous ruling to release the video recordings of the Perry v. Brown trial. Today’s decision means that the recordings will remain under seal. Prop 8’s opponents can now appeal the decision to the U.S. Supreme Court, which may exercise its own discretion about whether or not it wants to take the appeal.
The question of broadcasting the Perry trial has been a thorny one from the beginning. District Court Judge Vaughn Walker, who presided over the 2010 trial (known then as Perry v. Schwarzenegger) challenging the constitutionality of California’s Proposition 8, petitioned the 9th Circuit to include the Prop 8 trial in a pilot program the Circuit was trying out in which cameras were allowed into the courtroom. The 9th Circuit said yes, but the proponents of Prop 8 went to the U.S. Supreme Court (a notoriously camera-phobic body). Over 140,000 people signed a Courage Campaign petition to the courts asking that the proceedings be televised. The U.S. Supreme Court ultimately stayed the broadcast of the proceedings in a 5-4 decision. Judge Walker withdrew Perry from the pilot program, and while the case was still filmed, the tapes (actually, digital recordings) were given to the litigants and placed into the court record under a seal.
After they appealed Judge Walker’s August 2010 decision to the 9th Circuit, Prop 8′s proponents filed a motion in district court to prevent Judge Walker from showing portions of the recordings, which he had done at a few speaking engagements. The plaintiffs, along with a coalition of media companies, filed their own motion to have the court unseal the recordings and make them public. At this point, Judge Walker had retired, and Judge James Ware, who replaced him, heard both sides’ arguments in district court.
In September 2011, Judge Ware ordered the tapes to be unsealed. Prop 8′s proponents filed an emergency request with the 9th Circuit to stay the order, which was granted, and appealed the decision. In a December 8 hearing on the matter, an appeals panel of the 9th Circuit showed skepticism towards the proponents’ argument that releasing the tapes could lead to retribution against their witnesses. At the same time, the panel seemed wary to release the tapes, given Judge Walker’s promise to the litigants that they would be made only for his own personal use.
Keep in mind that today’s ruling has no impact on the 9th Circuit’s decision about the motion to vacate Judge Walker’s decision, the proponents’ standing to appeal or the larger question of the constitutionality of Prop 8. The 9th Circuit consolidated the motion to vacate and the constitutional challenge into one docket item last November, meaning it will issue one decision on both aspects of the Prop 8 case at a later date.
Today’s ruling regarding the tapes can be found below, via Scribd. Check back throughout the day for updates and analysis (which can be found below the text of the ruling).
Update: From the summary of the ruling:
Each of these abuses of discretion manifests the same basic error: the district court failed to appreciate the nature of the statements that the trial judge had made to the litigants, the specific factual and legal context in which he made them, and the consequences of his having done so. The integrity of our judicial system depends in no small part on the ability of litigants and members of the public to rely on a judge’s word. The record compels the finding that the trial judge’s representations to the parties were solemn commitments. Upon this record, there is only one plausible application of the standard for sealing a record that is, arguendo, subject to the common-law right of public access: the interest in preserving the sanctity of the judicial process is a compelling reason to override the presumption in favor of the recording’s release. We therefore reverse the order of the district court as an abuse of its discretion and remand with instructions to maintain the recording under seal.
Update 2: Statement from Rick Jacobs, chair and founder of the Courage Campaign, on the 9th Circuit’s ruling:
“We are disappointed in the 9th Circuit’s decision to not release the videotapes from the historic Prop 8 hearing. In our minds, it never made sense that transcripts from the hearing could be easily accessed by anyone but not the videotapes. That just proves that our cowardly opponents knew they did a poor job defending their bigotry and homophobia in court. We sincerely hope this decision does not herald more bad news regarding the unconstitutionality of Prop 8. Lives are depending on it.”
Update 3: Shannon Minter, legal director of the National Center for Lesbian Rights, shares his thoughts on the decision:
The court had tipped its hand on this issue at oral argument, so today’s ruling is not surprising. The bad news is that the public will be denied the right to see this historic trial, which is painfully disappointing. The good news is that the court based its decision on a very narrow basis that has no negative implications for how it will rule on the underlying issue of whether Prop 8 is unconstitutional. The sole basis for the ruling is the court’s determination that Judge Walker made a commitment to the parties that the recording would not be released and that disregarding that commitment would undermine the integrity of the judicial process.
Update 4: In my initial reading of the ruling, it seems fairly clear that the judges of the 9th Circuit panel made their decision with one aim in mind: addressing the effect that releasing the Perry recordings could have on the public’s perception of the judicial system. If there is one sentence that sums up the ruling, in my opinion, it is this one:
The interest in preserving the sanctity of the judicial process is a compelling reason to override the presumption in favor of the recording’s release.
In their decision, the judges do not even mention the purported harm to witnesses and supporters that the proponents of Prop 8 argued would inevitably come from a release of the recordings. (Indeed, the panel seemed quite skeptical of this claim in last December’s hearing.) Neither do they address the question of whether the trial recordings should be covered by the common-law right of public access, saying instead that they “simply assume, without deciding, for purposes of this case only, that the common-law presumption of public access applies to the recording at issue here and that it is not abrogated by the local rule in question.”
As the center point of its ruling, the panel focuses on two statements Judge Walker made during the district court trial in January 2010. In the first, made after the Supreme Court issued a stay against the public broadcast of the trial, Judge Walker said he would continue “taking the recording for purposes of use in chambers,” but that his recording was “not going to be for purposes of public broadcasting or televising.” The second statement comes from Walker’s opinion, in which he cites the Supreme Court’s stay and criticizes Prop 8’s proponents for not presenting more witnesses, even after “the potential for public broadcast in the case had been eliminated.”
In the 9th Circuit’s opinion, the proponents of Prop 8 relied upon these statements as promises that the trial recordings would never be made public. They then argue that Judge Ware, in his ruling releasing the recordings, did not appreciate the weight of Judge Walker’s commitment during trial to use the recordings for his purposes only.
Also, in an interesting footnote on p. 22 (thanks to Kathleen for noticing this!), the 9th Circuit orders the district court not to return Judge Walker’s copy of the recordings, which he had voluntarily lodged with the court while Judge Ware’s decision was pending.