The Supreme Court ruled 5-4 late yesterday that a federal judge in San Francisco had acted improperly in altering longstanding rules barring the televising of federal court proceedings. As a result, the federal trial of Proposition 8, the state constitutional amendment on the definition of marriage adopted in November 2008 by California voters, will not be broadcast to the nation via YouTube, posting to the Internet, or any other medium.
The ruling is a victory for proponents of the amendment, who argued that the presiding judge in the case, Vaughn Walker, had tilted the table against them, dismissing longtime concerns about the impact of cameras on fair trials and short-circuiting even minimal standards for notice-and-comment of his decision to open the trial to webcasting. Defenders of Prop 8 also provided evidence to buttress concern that video transmission of the trial would subject expert witnesses who defend traditional marriage to various forms of harassment and reprisal, citing this paper by Heritage Visiting Fellow Thomas Messner. The Supreme Court today cited those concerns in holding that the proponents of Prop 8 had adequately demonstrated irreparable harm to the case if the trial were broadcast.
The Court concluded, “The District Court attempted to change its rules at the eleventh hour to treat this case differently than other trials in the district. Not only did it ignore the federal statute that establishes the procedures by which its rules may be amended, its express purpose was to broadcast a high-profile trial that would include witness testimony about a contentious issue. If courts are to require that others follow regular procedures, courts must do so as well.” Given the length of the remaining trial – two or three weeks – observers believe that the Court’s stay may be the effective end of the effort to webcast the proceedings.