In a victory for open government, the Florida Supreme Court has rejected an effort to put courtroom electronic recordings out of reach of the public. The ruling largely settles an ongoing dispute over whether these recordings should be available as a public record.
The high court was asked to adopt an administrative rule change for the entire state court system that would have limited the scope of a public record to only written transcripts of courtroom trials and hearings. Audio recordings of court proceedings could have been held back at the discretion of the trial court or chief judge. While opposed by the state's public defenders, the proposed rule was supported by the Commission on Trial Court Performance and Accountability, the Florida Bar and Robert Morris, then-chief judge of the Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Court.
Morris, now an appellate judge, was interested because the proposed rule mirrored one adopted in the Pinellas-Pasco circuit courts when Judge David Demers was chief judge.
But earlier this month, the Supreme Court unanimously refused to adopt the rule. The court said it would be contrary to Florida's policy of government-in-the-sunshine and the court's "longstanding presumption in favor of openness." Florida courts increasingly rely on electronic recordings of proceedings, a process the high court found to be "useful, reliable, efficient and cost-effective." Easy public access to the recordings helps keep state courts accountable.
Regarding the concern that confidential attorney-client conversations may be captured by the recordings, the court put the responsibility on courtroom participants to safeguard against such slips after being notified. And it adopted a rule directing attorneys to take proper precautions against disclosures, including muting microphones when needed.
The decision means that Pinellas-Pasco circuit courts will have to make audio recordings available like other court-generated public records.
Audio recordings are particularly valuable since they are often available within hours of a hearing. A written transcript can take much longer to obtain. Having a person's voice recorded also provides a truer account of the proceedings, allowing a listener to hear vocal nuances of lawyers and witnesses. Limiting access to these recordings would have damaged the media's ability to quickly and accurately report on cases of public interest. The Florida Supreme Court performed a public service and reaffirmed the value of open government by ensuring these recordings are public record.