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Nearly all court proceedings are accompanied by a written record, generated by court stenographers.

From what I understand, courts occasionally use "sound" recordings in place of stenographer records. The original recording is not made available to the public but transcripts are. When, where, and why is this done?

Are court proceedings ever filmed or otherwise visually recorded? It seems that facial expression, hand motions, vocal intonations, etc. are part of the body of evidence on which a judge or jury decides a case. So is this type of record ever made available, and if so, when?

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From what I understand, courts occasionally use "sound" recordings in place of stenographer records. The original recording is not made available to the public but transcripts are. When, where, and why is this done?

In Colorado this is done in all limited jurisdiction court proceedings (i.e. the courts where misdemeanors and smaller money claims and evictions involving premises with fairly low rents are tried), and in most general jurisdiction court proceedings unless the parties pay for live transcription at their own expense. Transcripts are made when there is a sound recording only upon a request submitted to the court that then outsources the request to independent contractor transcriptionists.

This is a fairly recent development and there may be live stenographers (also known as court reporters) in some general jurisdiction courts still today in Colorado, but it is profoundly less expensive to tape record a hearing or trial and just transcribe them upon request at the expense of a party, than it is to have a live stenographer make a verbatim record of every hearing or trial. In limited jurisdiction courts typically only about one in a hundred cases is appealed, and in general jurisdiction courts typically about one in ten cases are appealed. The marginal cost of an audio recording that isn't transcribed, once the courtrooms are wired for sound, is negligible (perhaps $10 per day (or less) for storage media). The marginal costs of a live stenographer or transcriptionist per day is on the order of $240+, which adds up over the course of a year. In the limited jurisdiction court, live court reporting would cost about $24,000 per day of trial in cases that are actually appealed. In general jurisdiction courts, live court reporting would cost about $2,400 per day of trial in case s that are actually appealed. In contrast, with sound recordings, the cost per day of trial actually appealed in limited jurisdiction courts would cost $1,240, and in general jurisdiction courts it would cost $340. These are judicial branch expenses small enough to be financed with court filing fees.

Depositions prior to a trial are often handled by a live stenographer and sometimes handled by a videographer as well, but almost never conducted with sound only recordings in the absence of extreme circumstances like a blizzard that makes it impossible to secure the court reporter's attendance (in part because there is almost always a desire to have a transcript made and because the stenographer can confirm spellings and ambiguous sounding words with the deponents and counsel during breaks avoiding errors in the final product).

Are court proceedings ever filmed or otherwise visually recorded?

Depositions and court proceedings are sometimes filmed. A video of a deposition can be presented to a judge or jury in lieu of testimony when the witness is not available or to impeach the testimony of the witness.

It is unusual in Colorado for court proceedings to be visually recorded. But, in Alaska, there is a state constitutional right to participate in most kinds of court proceedings and legislative hearings by video conference (because geographically, Alaska is about a third the size of the continental U.S. and thinly populated with large roadless areas), so I presume that in Alaska, court proceedings are routinely videotaped.

Some courts in the U.S. do initial appearances and arraignments in many criminal cases by closed circuit television from the jail, before a judge in the court house, in order to reduce the need to transport prisoners from the jail to the court house for a perfunctory five minute hearing which is not evidentiary, and there may be video recordings of those proceedings as well.

Many federal courts and some state courts do status conferences and similar minor procedural hearings by telephone conference call and those are usually audio recorded without a live court reporter.

In Colorado, all oral arguments in appeals (except those rare cases that are secret such as juvenile cases and rare cases involving the details of trade secrets) are live streamed and podcast over the Internet. Many other appellate courts (but not the U.S. Supreme Court) do this as well. But, transcripts of oral arguments at the appellate level are rarely considered in further appeals. The video (or in the case of U.S. Supreme Court hearings, previously transcripts only and now audio as well) are released for PR reasons and for public transparency, reflecting appellate court's role as law making institutions, not for the litigants themselves.

It seems that facial expression, hand motions, vocal intonations, etc. are part of the body of evidence on which a judge or jury decides a case. So is this type of record ever made available, and if so, when?

A deposition or other videotape provided as evidence in a case at trial is part of the record on appeal that an appellate court may consider. And, a judge or jury may consider things like facial expressions, hand motions, vocal intonations, etc. in those cases.

But, video of the court proceeding itself is simply a basis for preparing a transcript that will become part of the court record. Appellate courts in common law systems are forbidden from considering things like facial expressions, hand motions, vocal intonations, etc. of witnesses testifying in a trial. This is part of the credibility evaluation function that is reserved entirely to the judge or jury who is the trier of fact in a case.

The only time a video of a trial court proceeding itself would be considered would be as evidence in a different trial arising out of events that took place in the courtroom itself.

For example, suppose that a court bailiff goes berserk and starts shooting jurors for no reason in the middle of a trial that was being videotaped. That videotape could be considered in a criminal trial of the court bailiff for assault with a deadly weapon or murder, or in a civil case brought by the jurors or their surviving next of kin, for battery or wrongful death. The appellate court of the criminal or civil trial of the bailiff could consider the videotape, but an appellate court considering an appeal of the proceeding that was being videotaped could not.

This is basically just a historical artifact. If videotape had been in existence at the time of the Norman invasion in 1066 CE, appellate courts in common law countries would no doubt have the right to review questions of both fact and law, rather than merely law as they do today.

In civil law countries, such as those of continental Europe, judges take notes regarding evidence, but there is no verbatim record of the proceedings and any assertion that the judge was mistaken about the facts is resolved by retrying the disputed facts over again in a second instance court proceeding, a process reflecting even more rudimentary court resources than those existing prior to tape and video recording were invented.

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Are court proceedings ever filmed or otherwise visually recorded?

is this type of record ever made available, and if so, when?

In the U.S. it varies by court. Even in a same jurisdiction, some counties videotape the hearings and others do not.

I used to order a copy of video of my hearings ($20 per case per day) in the county trial court in Michigan. My understanding is that the Michigan court of appeals records audio "only" (although I have seen on Youtube one or two oral arguments in the MCOA), which for $100 the litigant may request within a year of his oral argument and still be denied. Arguments at the MI supreme court are transmitted live on the court's website and uploaded to Youtube.

By contrast, you can find plenty of oral arguments at the 9th circuit court on Youtube.

For appellate purposes, a reviewing court hardly ever considers aspects (such as tons and facial expressions) that may influence a jury or judge. That is one "reason" why appellate courts typically defer to many of the factual findings made in trial court.

  • Appellate courts defer to factual findings because findings of fact are not subject to appeal, only findings of law are. – Dale M Feb 12 at 0:10
  • @DaleM Not entirely accurate. Deference ensues where "trial courts are 'uniquely positioned to observe the demeanor and conduct of witnesses'", Kelly v. Kelly, 445 S.W.3d 685, 692, not where clear and convincing evidence contradicts a trial judge's assessment. Example: the court in Goedker v. Scrham reversed the "findings" felon Carol Kuhnke made as pretext for granting summary disposition. See also Michigan MCR 7.216(A)(6): "The Court of Appeals may [...] draw inferences of fact". – Iñaki Viggers Feb 12 at 11:01
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You don't say which jurisdiction interests you, so I will explain what I know about - the English High Court, up to a few years ago (changes are afooot, but probably nothing that will have an effect at this level of generality).

A tape/digital recording is made of all proceedings unless the judge directs otherwise (he may, for example, direct that a witness's evidence be heard in private, and the normal recording, available to anyone who pays the fee, would be inappropriate. A private recording is usually made in such a case). It would be both wrong and impractical to make the recording available to one party (accusations of tampering are inevitable), so if the record is requested the 'tape' is sent to a stenographer on the authorized panel, who provides a written transcript of the recording, for approval by the judge before circulation (again, there may be sections that should not be made public for some reason). If it is vital to have a transcript as soon as possible, a shorthand writer may be authorized to sit in court and provide notes at the end of the important part.

English courts have been traditionally opposed to cameras in court, though this is changing. One reason is that a sound record is unbiased and practically indisputable, since only one person is speaking at a time. Cameras, however, require someone to aim them at the important action; and even if this is done properly (it isn't always), nobody can tell whether the most important factor was the witness's expression when he made a claim, or the defendant's (or even judge's) expression when he heard it. One of the duties of the court staff is to amplify the recording for the transcriber, perhaps putting a note like '(waves arms in horizontal circles)' when the witness says "He went like this"; but going beyond a verbatim record is fraught with danger.

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