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‘Matter of monumental significance’: Media scrambles for access to Trump arraignment in and out of court

Trump arraignment line

Scores of journalists queue up overnight before former President Donald Trump’s arraignment. (Photo by Adam Klasfeld)

When New York courts didn’t have a formal system in place for media access to Donald Trump’s historic arraignment, reporters and their news organizations took matters into their own hands. Night fell over Manhattan. Their attorneys battled for access inside the court. Reporters devised an ad hoc system for those who arrived early enough to watch the proceedings inside the courtroom.

Then, they passed around boxes of pizza and began their long wait.

The system began in the absence of any formal plan for courtroom access, except for urging from courthouse authorities to line up early. NBC started off the line around 2 p.m. on Monday, and the makeshift queue quickly expanded. Law360’s reporter Frank Runyeon, one of the stalwarts of the New York City court beat, created the list and signed up newcomers.

“We were all trying to figure out how to make order out of chaos and then the list came to be,” Runyeon was quoted by local news organization Hell Gate, the second outlet on the list.

“This is the jungle,” Runyeon added later.

By evening, some 50 reporters already queued up. Some would stay there overnight, and others hired professional line sitters to take their place.

Sometime in the early evening, Manhattan Supreme Court Justice Juan Merchan issued a ruling acknowledging what caused all the fuss.

“That this indictment involves a matter of monumental significance cannot possibly be disputed,” Merchan wrote. “Never in the history of the United States has a sitting or past President been indicted on criminal charges. Mr. Trump’s arraignment has generated unparalleled public interest and media attention. The populace rightly hungers for the most accurate and current information available. To suggest otherwise would be disingenuous. Understandably, the News Organizations want to fulfill their responsibilities and argue that obtaining the broadest possible public access helps advance that mission.”

From there, Merchan’s ruling wasn’t an unqualified win for the press. His order would allow for access to the courthouse and two overflow rooms, where the proceedings would be streamed on closed-circuit television. But he wouldn’t allow electronics in the courtroom. There would be no live-tweeting. A handful of photographers could snap pictures, but the TV cameramen would have to remain in the hall.

“Unfortunately, although genuine and undoubtedly important, the interests of the news organizations must be weighed against competing interests,” Merchan wrote.

With the judge’s signature, the only people observing the first criminal proceeding of a former U.S. president in real time would have to do so in person, and the line expanded into the triple digits by sunrise. For breakfast, reporters passed around bananas, bagels and pastries like rugelach. Pro-Trump protesters were still largely asleep or hadn’t yet made it to Coddle Pond Park, adjacent to where the line had formed.

Courthouse authorities and New York City police handed out color-coded passes at 8 a.m. Those who arrived early enough for a green pass would be inside the room where Trump will be arraigned. The white and golden passes would mark the two overflow rooms. Attorneys for news outlets are expected to fight for more transparency at a conference at 2:15 p.m., minutes before Trump’s arraignment.

Law&Crime will be reporting from inside the courtroom.

Read Judge Merchan’s ruling here.

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Law&Crime's managing editor Adam Klasfeld has spent more than a decade on the legal beat. Previously a reporter for Courthouse News, he has appeared as a guest on NewsNation, NBC, MSNBC, CBS's "Inside Edition," BBC, NPR, PBS, Sky News, and other networks. His reporting on the trial of Ghislaine Maxwell was featured on the Starz and Channel 4 documentary "Who Is Ghislaine Maxwell?" He is the host of Law&Crime podcast "Objections: with Adam Klasfeld."