9th Circuit Smack Down: Keep Trial Tapes Secret

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The Chief Judge of California's Northern District Court last year ordered video tapes of the Prop. 8 trial released. But a 3-judge panel of the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals today disagreed -- and it wasn't close. In a 3-0 decision written by Stephen Reinhardt, the court ruled that Judge Ware "abused his discretion" in releasing the tapes, essentially breaking a promise made by Judge Vaughn Walker, who presided over the historic Prop. 8 trial in 2010.

After the US Supreme Court stopped the trial from being broadcast on YouTube, Judge Walker rejected a request from Prop. 8 backers to shut off the cameras ... promising the recordings would only be used in his chambers to help write his decision.

The judges today said "preserving sanctity of the judicial process" required reversing the lower court and keeping the tapes sealed.

A coalition of media organizations, including KQED, joined opponents of Prop. 8 in arguing for transparency and release of the video tapes. Prop. 8 plaintiffs argued that since opponents of same sex marriage also claim Judge Walker was biased and should have revealed he was in a same sex relationship with another man that releasing the trial tapes was even more essential so the public could decide for itself on whether the trial was conducted fairly.

But today's decision surprises no one. At oral arguments in January, the judges indicated their reluctance to essentially go back on Judge Walker's pledge when he kept the cameras rolling.

The 9th Circuit has been generally supportive of more transparency in the court, i.e. allowing cameras to record proceedings. Indeed, cameras were allowed during the oral arguments on this case. In their order today, the judges made plain they were not passing judgment on the larger question of cameras in the courtroom.

Prop. 8 junkies -- and insomniacs who've run out of sleep aides -- can always watch "dramatic re-enactments" of the Prop. 8 trial based on verbatim trial transcripts.

Still to come: Decisions by this panel on whether Judge Walker's ruling striking down Prop. 8 should be set aside because Walker didn't reveal he was in a long-term relationship with another man ... and the Big Kahuna -- whether Prop. 8 itself is constitutional. Those decisions could come at any time. Today's ruling is no indication of how the panel will rule on those matters.

Ultimately of course the ultimate fate of Prop. 8 will likely be decided by the U.S. Supreme Court, possibly in 2013.

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