Minnesota broadcasts criminal sentencings … and the world doesn’t end

One of the main concerns expressed by lawyers and judges about courtroom cameras is that they will lead to grandstanding and obnoxious courtroom behavior. But the experience in Minnesota state courts suggests that these concerns are overblown. Using a bit of a loophole in the law — sentencing proceedings do not require assent from the parties — more media are gaining camera access to high-profile sentencings. The results have been mostly positive.

There are ample reasons to want to protect the privacy of victims, jurors, and witnesses during trial. But there are also ample reasons to make the open forum of the courtroom truly open to everyone. Video access of court proceedings is assuredly compatible with safety, due process, and substantial justice.

Massachusetts set to lift ban on cell phones in courthouses

Following the recommendation of its Access to Justice Commission, the Massachusetts Trial Court Department is taking immediate steps to lift the ban on cell phones on state courthouses.

The Commission’s report

cited hardships such as the inability of self-represented litigants to present photos or text messages as evidence to a judge, to consult their calendars, to reach child care providers, or to transact other “essential” business.

The recommendations of the working group include a full review of all courthouse bans to determine whether they are justified, and a pilot program to test the use of magnetically locked security pouches.

“Instead of using a strategy that relies on prohibiting the possession of cell phones as a condition of entry, each courthouse should employ a strategy, tailored to its security needs, that relies on regulating and controlling the use of cell phones within the building,” the authors of the report wrote.

This seems like a sensible step in the right direction. The made sense to ban phones in an earlier era, where the potential distraction might outweigh their value. But the near necessity of cell phones today–for child care and emergency communications, as memory and scheduling devices, and as carriers of critical personal information–merits a different response.

 

 

Ontario Court of Appeals allows livestreaming of carbon tax dispute

Ontario’s highest court is allowing livestreaming this week of an important case between the provincial government and Canada’s federal government over the latter’s imposition of a carbon tax. CBC cameras are being allowed to capture the arguments and share the broadcast with other media. These are the first televised arguments at the Ontario Court of Appeals since 2007. The first day of oral arguments can be found here.

Earlier this year, the Saskatchewan Court of Appeal also allowed livestreaming in a case involving a provincial challenge to the carbon tax, underscoring the special nature of this litigation. The real lesson: don’t get too comfortable with cameras in Canadian provincial courtrooms; the practice is still remarkably rare.

What should we expect when Justices Alito and Kagan testify before Congress this week?

Political theater, to be sure — but of the potentially useful variety.

U.S. Supreme Court Justices Samuel Alito and Elena Kagan will reportedly testify before the House Appropriations Subcommittee on financial services and general government on March 7, to discuss the Court’s annual budget request. It will be the first public hearing on the Court’s budget since 2015; over the last several years, Justices have met privately with Congressional leaders.

The tradition of federal judges (including Supreme Court Justices) testifying before Congress dates back at least to the 1920s, when then-Chief Justice Taft and selected colleagues repeatedly appeared before Congress to discuss pending legislation affecting the courts. But that was in an era before television cameras and Twitter. The purpose and meaning of such hearings has long changed, and the presence of Justices, sans robes, at the witness table is sufficiently unusual these days as to attract quite a bit of attention.

Even though the scheduled testimony is technically about the Court’s budget, everyone seems to understand that financial minutiae will only be a small part of the discussion. Subcommittee members are likely to use the rare opportunity for direct interaction with the Justices to broach a variety of unrelated subjects, including an ethics code for the Supreme Court, the introduction of courtroom cameras, and the federal court system’s new workplace conduct policies.

The hearing itself is unlikely to break any new ground. The Justices have a strong tradition of circling the wagons on their internal matters, and Justice Kagan in particular has a smooth temperament that helps her avoid stepping into controversy. (She did manage to effectively wrangle the Harvard Law faculty for several years, after all.) Alito and Kagan both understand the nature of the production, as well as the ultimate goal: to get out unscathed.

To the extent Congress and the courts need to coordinate on important issues, one can only hope that they are doing so behind the scenes. The courts have been understandably cautious about communicating directly with Congress on matters of legal interpretation, given separation of powers concerns. But administrative issues are a different animal altogether, and there is ample space for the courts to work with Congress on funding and operational issues which are of important interest to both branches.

Still, while Thursday’s hearing may not produce much that is immediately newsworthy, it is still an important exercise. The Supreme Court has been famously reticent to align many of its practices with modern public expectations, from failing to adopt an ethics code to rejecting calls for courtroom cameras. Congressional hearings put the Justices on the spot to justify the Court’s positions in a public forum, thereby forcing the Court to periodically reconsider whether its existing practices help or harm its public legitimacy.

Neither the Supreme Court nor the federal court system should allow itself to be bullied by Congress or public demand, but there is still room for continuous improvement. The occasional public hearing can be a useful pressure point to bring that improvement to fruition.

 

 

Saskatchewan debates more extensive use of courtroom cameras

The Saskatchewan Court of Appeal is allowing live streaming of an oral argument for the fourth time this week, in a case involving a challenge to Canada’s federal carbon tax. The event has reignited discussion about moving cameras into the trial courts. While this story’s headline suggests that the discussion is more developed than it actually is, it is nice to see increased recognition that courtroom cameras typically carry more benefits than risks.

Sheriff accused of manipulating courtroom cameras to view juror’s notebook during trial

Regular readers of this blog know that I am a strong advocate of courtroom cameras to promote transparency and educate the public about the work of the courts. So when access to courtroom cameras is abused, I am obligated to note that as well.

In a truly odd case coming out of San Juan County, Washington, the court dismissed assault and trespass charges against a criminal defendant after it was discovered that the local sheriff was manipulating a courtroom camera to view defense documents and a juror’s notebook during trial. The manipulation was only discovered when the defense attorney was reviewing a calendar at the court administrator’s desk during a break in the trial.

Loring [the defense attorney] said she was reviewing a calendar at the desk of Jane Severin, the court administrator, which has two computer monitors — one for work and the other showing views from security cameras in and outside the San Juan County Courthouse. According to court documents, Loring said her attention was drawn to movement of one of the normally stationary cameras. A closer look revealed it was the camera located above the jury box in district court, and that it was panning, tilting and zooming in on the jury box and counsel tables.

Good grief.

The sheriff maintain that any camera manipulation was accidental and unintentional. The judge dismissed the case.

India’s Supreme Court to introduce live streaming

The Indian Express reports:

Ushering in more transparency in the judiciary’s work, the Supreme Court on Wednesday gave its nod to live-streaming of court proceedings, saying this will bring more accountability and enhance the rule of law.

A bench of Chief Justice of India Dipak Misra and Justices A M Khanwilkar and D Y Chandrachud, in two concurring judgements — one by CJI Misra and Justice Khanwilkar and other by Justice Chandrachud — said: “We hold that the cause brought before this court by the protagonists in larger public interest deserves acceptance so as to uphold the constitutional rights of the public, and the litigants in particular.”

Delving into the benefits of allowing this, Justice Chandrachud said, “Above all, sunlight is the best disinfectant.”

India gets it. When will we be able to say that of our Supreme Court?