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Doing Justice To Federal Court Reporting

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PHOENIX -- There was a lively debate in federal district court in Phoenix last Friday over whether Arizona can ban young immigrants who qualify for an Obama administration program from getting driver’s licenses.

In a hearing that lasted well over two hours, the judge grilled both sides with tough questions.

Or so I heard from other reporters. I didn’t get to see it myself.

Not for lack of trying, though. I had planned to be there, and I got to court on time.

When I got to security, I handed over my audio recorder and camera to the U.S. Marshals who work there as I’ve done numerous times before. That equipment isn’t allowed into the building, but there are cubbies at the entrance where journalists check their gear during the court proceeding, and then can pick it up on the way out to record the press conferences that often immediately follow the hearings outside.

This time, however, I was told reporters could no longer leave gear at the front.

According to the supervisor on duty there, the rule banning electronics from the cubbies started being enforced a few months ago. Left with no other choice, I had to return my equipment to my car several blocks away.

By the time I returned, the courtroom was full and no one else was allowed in.

About 25 or so others were also turned away, mostly young immigrants eager to watch oral arguments on an issue that directly impacts their daily lives.

The fact that I couldn’t see the court proceeding on Friday was mostly a fluke due to the unusually high public interest in the case, and the fact that the court unfortunately did not set up a TV feed to show the proceedings in an overflow room.

But the rule that reporters can't leave gear in the entrance cubbies is the part that worries me, since it will make covering what goes on in federal court harder for broadcast media.

Often the only time to get recorded comments from attorneys or others involved in a case is in the few minutes they are walking out from the courthouse. If reporters have to leave gear in cars parked blocks away, it makes it very hard to get those comments. (Not to mention, here Phoenix, leaving electronics in a car is usually a recipe for disaster because of the heat).

And if reporters have to babysit their equipment outside, they miss seeing what happens in court. I wasn't the only one in that boat during last Friday's hearing.

Some television stations might be able to send a reporter inside to cover court, while the cameraman waits outside with the gear. But many news outlets increasingly don't have the staff to do that.

In an e-mail, U.S. Marshals Service spokesman Matt Hershey explained it has always been U.S. District Court policy that no electronic recording devices can come in the building, but there used to be a courtesy service offered to leave them up front.

"Up until recently, a courtesy was afforded so these items could be left at the front of the courthouse," Hershey wrote. "That courtesy was not a policy, therefore the policy has not changed. As an agency, we are constantly reviewing our practices and recently decided that it is not the best practice for this courtesy to continue."

Hershey's response did not elaborate on why the U.S. Marshals decided letting reporters leave recording devices in cubbies is not a best practice from the agency perspective.

I can't help thinking there must be some compromise we can come up with to solve this equipment-storage dilemma at the courts. Accurate and in-depth broadcast reporting on legal issues may depend on it.

Jude Joffe-Block was a senior field correspondent at KJZZ from 2010 to 2017.