Virginia: Special Cases – a Lawyer’s Cameras

Virginia: Special Cases – a Lawyer’s Cameras

In Virginia Broadcasting Corp. v. Commonwealth, No. 122013, the Virginia Supreme Court held the trial court did not abuse its discretion in denying the media’s request to have a camera in the Courtroom during the sentencing hearing of a highly-publicized murder trial. Id. at 18. It interpreted and applied Va. Code Ann. §19.2-266. Id. at 4-18.

First, Virginia Broadcasting decided the appellate standard of review applicable to §19.2-266’s rare discretionary touchstone, “solely in its discretion”. Id. at 4-7. “We hold that the trial court’s decision under Code §19.2-266 is subject to judicial review, albeit under a highly deferential abuse of discretion standard.” Id. at 7.

Second, after finding the case presented an “exception to the mootness doctrine,” id. at 8-9; Virginia Broadcasting considered §19.2-266’s meaning based on both construction canons and legislative history because the “statute is not a model of clarity”. Id. at 9-10. Per legislative history, the General Assembly “clearly intended to give the trial court great discretion in making the initial determination whether to permit still photography or camera in the courtroom;” and “left the guidelines in the statute so that once a court had made a decision to permit coverage, that court had the guidelines to follow to ensure that such coverage was handled properly”. Id. at 13.

Third, Virginia Broadcasting holds that “under the statute, a hearing is not required prior to a court’s initial determination whether to permit coverage”. Moreover, “[t]here is no requirement that evidence be presented to the trial court to support the initial decision, and the trial court is not required to explain its reasons for denying a request.” Id. at 16.

Fourth, Virginia Broadcasting holds further that if a trial judge decides to permit coverage and “a party objects to the coverage, then the party must show a good cause why the coverage should be restricted or prohibited. Essentially, the objecting party must demonstrate good cause why the trial judge’s initial decision to permit coverage should be revised, and coverage prohibited or restricted in some manner.” Id. at 14.