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There’s a legal reason why you can watch the Johnny Depp v. Amber Heard trial but couldn’t watch the Ghislaine Maxwell trial

Federal and state trials have different rules for cameras in the courtroom.

UPDATE, 6/1/2022: A jury has awarded Johnny Depp more than $10 million in his libel lawsuit against ex-wife Amber Heard, the Associated Press reports. It vindicates his stance that Heard fabricated claims that she was abused by Depp before and during their brief marriage. The jury also found in favor of Heard, who said she was defamed by Depp’s lawyer when he called her abuse allegations a hoax. Jury members decided Heard should receive $2 million. 

Johnny Depp is suing his ex-wife, actress Amber Heard, for defamation following her op-ed in The Washington Post, where she referred to herself as a "public figure representing domestic abuse." Heard has since countersued Depp, and both have publicly accused the other of domestic violence.

Videos of the highly publicized trial have drawn millions of views on YouTube and TikTok, spurring questions about courtroom procedures and public access. 

One tweet compared the coverage of the Depp v. Heard trial with that of Ghislaine Maxwell, whose trial for conspiring with Jeffrey Epstein to sexually abuse and traffick minors back in December was not televised. Washington Times columnist Tim Young pointed out the disparity in coverage between the two trials. The post has over 23,000 likes and 4,100 retweets, with some comments suggesting suspicious reasons for the differences.

Other people on social media asked why the public wasn’t given the same access to the Maxwell case.

THE QUESTION

Do all courts have the same camera policy?

THE SOURCES

THE ANSWER

This is false.

No, all courts do not have the same camera policy. Federal courts are subject to a rule that, with few exceptions, bans cameras from the courtroom. State and local courts have more leniency to allow cameras in courtrooms.

WHAT WE FOUND

Federal and state trials are subject to different rules for filming inside courtrooms. 

State court rules for cameras vary depending on the state and the type of case. Judges can write permissions to use electronic devices in cases, often with strict guidelines and additional information required from attorneys. A federal court rule forbids filming federal trials like Ghislaine Maxwell’s from inside the courtroom. 

That federal rule, Rule 53, states that unless “otherwise provided by a statute or these rules, the court must not permit the taking of photographs in the courtroom during judicial proceedings or the broadcasting of judicial proceedings from the courtroom.”

Judge Alison Nathan, who presided over Maxwell’s trial, issued an order to keep access open to the alleged victims, the defendant’s family, the press and the public, U.S. District Court documents show. Though reporters weren’t able to livestream the proceedings, they were still able to take notes and share courtroom sketches.  

That law doesn’t apply to state courts like the one where Johnny Depp and Amber Heard’s case is taking place. State courts have more freedom on what they can allow to be broadcast. The specific rules depend on where the trial is taking place. Depp v. Heard is a civil case being tried in Fairfax County, Virginia; it is subject to local and state laws, which only require written permission from the judge for any electronic devices like cameras.

"Photography, video and audio recording, and/or other audio or video transmission from inside the courthouse is strictly prohibited without written permission of the court," reads the Fairfax County courtroom rules on electronic devices.  Virginia Penney Azcarate, the Fairfax County Circuit Court judge hearing Depp and Heard case, filed a March 29 order allowing a pool video system to be in place for the trial, which provides live footage to media outlets.

The order also outlines specific provisions to help maintain courtroom privacy while still allowing the public to see parts of the trial, such as barring recording of side conversations or conversations between attorneys and clients, attorneys and the judge, or having recording devices on during recess.

The defamation suit between Depp and Heard isn’t the only widely broadcasted state case. Other recent examples of state trials that were broadcast include those of Kyle Rittenhouse and Derek Chauvin.

The Radio Television Digital News Association (RTDNA) provides a free state-by-state guide about camera procedures in the courtroom. 

@verifythis

The trial of #AmberHeard and #JohnnyDepp is a state trial with different broadcast rules. #johnnydepptrial #legal #news #explainer #ghislainemaxwell #trial #explainer #deppvheard

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