Court Photos

The steps of the Arizona Supreme Court building in Phoenix are now off-limits to photography without prior permission.

PHOENIX -- The Arizona Supreme Court isn’t kicking photographers off the courthouse steps.

It just seems that way.

“It wasn’t intended to be a ban,” said Aaron Nash, a spokesman for the court.

The wording, however, suggested otherwise. The unintentional ban came about in an order released Oct. 16. Chief Justice Robert Brutinel signed it. It prohibited all types of photography and video in and outside the Supreme Court building in Phoenix and the state Appeals Court building in Tucson.

It was the outside part that got the attention of the press. The ban included “entrances, exits, steps and stairways, patios, hallways and sidewalks …”

It was not, Nash said, meant to include photography on the courthouse steps, the parking lot or the sidewalk. It just read that way. The working press complained. Or at least their lawyers did.

The court apparently got the message.

“We’re working to revise it,” Nash said on the phone Thursday. “It wasn’t intended to stop the media from doing what it’s always done.”

The revised order, I’m told, will make it clear. Photographers outside the courthouse won’t have security confronting them and ordering them to delete photos.

That’s good to know.

I could have used a little more clarity when I took pictures on the Supreme Court steps. That was in the later 2000s. I was a writer-photographer for Arizona Capitol Times. I think I got the photo gig because I had a nice camera.

I went to photograph lawyers coming out of the courthouse, following an oral argument. It might have had something to do with a challenge to a ballot measure. A political dispute, in any case.

I waited on the steps outside. The lawyers came out. I began clicking away. A security guard came out and told me to stop. I probably shouldn’t have argued, but I did.

I said I didn’t see a problem. I was in a public space taking pictures of people wrestling with matters key to our electoral system, if not democracy itself. I wish I had been that articulate. I think I just shouted I had a right to stand here and take pictures. He disagreed.

I told him I’d move to the sidewalk. Not good enough. I couldn’t take pictures. Not here, not there. Not anywhere, at least within sight of the steps. I raised my voice. (Not recommended.) He threatened to take my camera and have me arrested.

It was not a good look, for either of us.

My wife, since retired, worked in the building. I can almost imagine her looking out of her window and thinking: “What’s he done now?”

I needed a lifeline. I called Cari Gerchick. She was the Supreme Court spokeswoman. She came out of the courthouse and practically ran down the steps. She put out the fuse. She told the guard it was OK for me to take photos. She apologized to me.

I’d call her up again and thank her, if I could. Gerchick died last year. She was 49.

Maybe the dust-up over the new order will make it better for the next guy with a camera. The revised order will have it in writing. Photographers won’t be barred from shooting outside the building.

I’m pretty sure the guard I tangled with has since retired. If he hasn’t, I hope he at least gets the memo. The new and improved one.

It’s not just the courthouse. Something about cameras brings out the gendarmes. I could walk around with a notebook and pen and nobody would notice. Strap a camera to my neck and people pay attention. Or so they did when was I told to photograph a building on the Tempe campus of Arizona State, again for the Capitol Times.

It was a new building with a green rating. Gold-standard green. I took pictures from across the street. A woman came out and asked what I was doing. Taking photos for a newspaper, I said. I think she asked for credentials. I showed her a business card.

I guess she was impressed. She gave me a green light to shoot the green building. Just no photos through the windows. She hinted at some sensitive research. I assured her I just wanted pictures of the building. She pointed out a few features that made it green. So that was helpful.

Shooting inside buildings is different. People have some expectation of privacy, even in public buildings. So photographers can’t just run into a courtroom or a meeting room and start clicking away. Ask first, ask nicely.

That’s how I asked when I wanted a better angle inside an Arizona House hearing room. Once again, years ago.

I couldn’t get a good shot of people testifying on behalf of a bill. At least not from the aisle. I asked a security officer if I could stand behind the committee members. A straight-on view.

He said, “Sure.”

I admit, I might have bothered some of the lawmakers. You know, clicking away while breathing down their necks. I know I bothered somebody.

The word went out. Barrett Marson, the then-House spokesman, was soon marching up the aisle. I didn’t think he was there to pat me on the back. He told me to scram.

I went peacefully.

Win some, lose some.

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Reach contributing writer Bill Coates at bccoates@cox.net.

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