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Supreme Court blocks broadcast of California gay marriage trial

The U.S. Supreme Court has blocked broadcast of the same-sex marriage trial in California on a procedural technicality.

In a 5-4 ruling issued Wednesday evening, the Court declined to rule on the merits of “whether such trials should be broadcast.” Instead, the unsigned opinion states, “the broadcast in this case should be stayed because it appears the courts below did not follow the appropriate procedures set forth in federal law before changing their rules to allow such broadcasting.”

The Court held that the district court failed to follow proper procedures when it amended its local rules in order to allow the trial to be broadcast, and failed to give sufficient time for notice and comment on the rule change. Coverage of the trial was to be aired on the video sharing site YouTube.com.

The Court, acknowledging that the issue of cameras in the courtroom is a hot topic, took a pass on addressing that issue. “We do not here express any views on the propriety of broadcasting court proceedings generally,” the opinion stated. “Instead, our review is confined to a narrow legal issue: whether the District Court’s amendment of its local rules to broadcast this trial complied with federal law. We conclude that it likely did not and that applicants have demonstrated that irreparable harm would likely result from the District Court’s actions.”

Opponents of broadcasting the proceedings argued that it could result in witness harassment and intimidation.  ”Some of applicants’ witnesses have already said that they will not testify if the trial is broadcast, and they have substantiated their concerns by citing incidents of past harassment,” the opinion states, adding: “The balance of equities favors applicants. While applicants have demonstrated the threat of harm they face if the trial is broadcast, respondents have not alleged any harm if the trial is not broadcast.”

Justice Stephen Breyer dissented from the per curiam ruling, joined by Justices John Paul Stevens, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sonia Sotomayor.

“Certainly the parties themselves had more than adequate notice and opportunity to comment before the Rule was changed,” Breyer wrote. “There was also sufficient ‘opportunity for comment.’ The parties, the intervenors, other judges, the public-all had an opportunity to comment.”

Then Breyer questioned why the High Court was involved in the first place.

“This legal question is not the kind of legal question that this Court would normally grant certiorari to consider,” Breyer wrote. “There is no conflict among the state or federal courts regarding the procedures by which a district court changes its local rules.”

As to the issue of irreparable harm, Breyer wrote: “the witnesses, although capable of doing so, have not asked this Court to set aside the District Court’s order. And that is not surprising. All of the witnesses supporting the applicants are already publicly identified with their cause. They are all experts or advocates who have either already appeared on television or Internet broadcasts, already toured the State advocating a ‘yes’ vote on Proposition 8, or already engaged in extensive public commentary far more likely to make them well known.”

The full opinion in the case Hollingsworth v. Perry can be read here.

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