Chief Justice issues 2020 Year End Report

Per longstanding tradition, while you were anxiously coaxing 2020 into oblivion last night, the Chief Justice quietly issued his Year-End Report on the Federal Judiciary. Also per tradition, this year’s report features more musty anecdotes about the courts, this time focused (predictably) on pandemics. The Chief Justice congratulates the entire court system on its turn to video hearings and trials in the wake of the COVID-19 spread.

Kudos are indeed in order for reacting relatively swiftly, but I will save my formal congratulations for when the federal courts embrace technology with foresight and a commitment to transparency. Here’s an area where the federal courts could learn much from their state counterparts, if they are willing.

Federal courts announce audio livestream pilot

From today’s press release:

Thirteen district courts around the country will livestream audio of select proceedings in civil cases of public interest next year as part of a two-year pilot program.

Some of the courts already have begun making proceedings available via audio livestreams. The Northern District of Georgia on Dec. 7 streamed audio of a hearing on a presidential election-related lawsuit, which drew over 42,000 listeners. In September, the Eastern District of Missouri streamed audio of a status conference in the case of U.S. v. City of Ferguson. The remaining courts will be livestreaming by February 2021.

The 13 district courts participating in the pilot are in Northern California, Southern Florida, Northern Georgia, Kansas, Montana, Eastern Missouri, Nevada, Northern New York, Western Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Eastern Tennessee, Eastern Washington, and Washington D.C.

The livestreams will give the public access to real-time courtroom audio on the courts’ designated YouTube channels. Audio streaming of civil proceedings under the pilot requires the parties’ consent and is subject to the presiding judge’s discretion. The pilot excludes trials and civil proceedings involving jurors and witnesses, and also sealed, confidential, and classified materials.

While the pilot temporarily suspends a prohibition on broadcasting federal court proceedings in the designated courts, the livestreams may not be recorded or rebroadcast.

It’s an interesting followup to the now shuttered pilot program that enabled video recording (and subsequent rebroadcasting) of selected district court proceedings. Of course, many state courts implemented video livestreaming months or years ago, without any ill effect.

Making sense of the new PACER bill

There is plenty of room for constructive compromise, but it requires everyone to acknowledge that “free” PACER is not actually free.

Last week, the House of Representatives passed the Open Courts Act of 2020, H.R. 8235, by a voice vote. The bill would radically reform access to federal court records by requiring (among other things) that the courts’ PACER system be modernized and its contents made free to the public. The bill drew praise from open courts advocates, and furious pushback from the Judicial Conference and the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts (AO). Indeed, the Judicial Conference’s reaction was probably the most vigorous response I have seen from the courts in many years.

It is a rare piece of legislation these days that can simultaneously garner bipartisan support and solicit institutional panic from the judicial branch. So it’s worth examining closely. What we find is an opportunity for the court system to improve its transparency and its own performance, albeit not on the schedule or in the manner it would prefer. Continue reading “Making sense of the new PACER bill”

Some Georgia courts to broadcast live trials — sort of

I got excited when I saw the headline from a Columbus, Georgia television station: City of Columbus purchasing courtroom cameras to allow public to watch jury trials. After all, one major lesson from the coronavirus pandemic has been that the presence of cameras in the courtroom is far less disruptive than some believe. To be sure, one needs to be cautious about protecting privacy and due process, but those values can coexist comfortably with video technology.

But it turns out that the Georgia court cameras will only broadcast trials into the next room, not out to the public in general. This artificially limits the number of people who can view the trials, learn about the court system, and see it in action.

It’s good, of course, that the courts are at least opening trials again for public view — and cameras are the only safe way to open courtrooms to the general public for as long as the pandemic lasts. But this strikes me as a missed opportunity to bootstrap a transparency measure and turn it into a much larger positive for the courts and the public.

All 13 U.S. Courts of Appeal now feature live streaming

Many courts moved to some form of live streaming–either audio or video–since the start of the coronavirus pandemic. State courts have led the way, although federal courts have also made changes to improve public access and transparency. (Even the Supreme Court offered telephonic access to a few arguments.) Now, Bloomberg Law reports, all thirteen federal appellate courts offer live streaming.

The courts are still coy about whether they will maintain live streaming once the pandemic subsides. Some courts will certainly hold onto it — the Second and Ninth Circuits, for example, have already been live streaming for years. But hopefully other courts will also see the benefit — and associated lack of harm — with letting the public look in on the administration of justice.

Israel’s High Court opens to cameras

The Times of Israel has a wonderful long-form piece on the decision of Israel’s High Court of Justice to open its proceedings to videocameras, just in time for a contentious political and legal fight over the proposed creation of a new unity government. The story explains how the High Court — facing charges that it had become increasingly political and therefore untrustworthy — decided to open its deliberations to public view. A snippet:

The fears of contamination and spectacle have been overtaken by growing frustration that the court’s story was being told by others, by right-wing critics and left-wing moralists, that no one was left in the public debate to defend the court on its own terms, to argue its deliberations were earnest and exacting and its concerns legal rather than political.

And so Chief Justice Esther Hayut embarked on a “pilot” project in mid-April to broadcast many of the court’s hearings and deliberations to the outside world — just in time for the most contentious and politically significant hearings in the nation’s recent history.

The result has been a revelation. For the first time, Israelis could watch the proceedings in their entirety. And according to the Government Press Office that managed the broadcast, about a million Israelis watched the deliberations on Sunday and Monday — 130,000 just through the GPO servers, and the rest via the live broadcasts on all three major television channels and multiple online news outlets.

They watched the justices push back against all sides, saw their frustration with the sloppiness and grandstanding of the left-wing petitioners and their pinpoint questions to the representatives of the right that forced unexpected compromises.

Again and again, the justices interrupted attorneys’ speeches prepared not for the courtrooms but for the cameras.

Sunlight is the best disinfectant, for the viewer as much as the viewed.

COVID-19 and the courts: Where we are and where we might be going

A glance at the recent developments, and what to look for in the future.

It has been about seven weeks since the coronavirus pandemic began to affect state and federal courts in the United States. At this point, it seems worthwhile to set out the ways in which courts have responded, both by adjusting their own operations and by reaching out to others in the external environment. We can also begin to consider which of the current changes might stick after the pandemic subsides.

Hearings and transparency. Many state court systems have proven remarkably agile at moving in-court proceedings to telephone and videoconference platforms. Both trial and appellate courts are now holding regular hearings via Zoom (although some lawyers apparently need a reminder about appropriate dress). At least one state court has even conducted a full bench trial by Zoom. The federal court system has also made impressive strides, albeit with a bit more reluctance. In late March, the Judicial Conference of the United States authorized the Chief Judge of each federal district court to permit selected criminal hearings within the district to proceed by videoconference. Federal appellate courts have also begun conducting criminal hearings by videoconference. And the United States Supreme Court announced that after a coronavirus-induced hiatus, it would hear a handful of regularly scheduled oral arguments by telephone beginning in May. Continue reading “COVID-19 and the courts: Where we are and where we might be going”

What does a court hearing by videoconference look like? Here’s an example.

Kudos to the Miami Herald for posting this story on the first Zoom hearing in a criminal case in the Miami-Dade court system. Most interestingly, the story includes an edited video of the hearing, in which the judge sat in the courtroom, the prosecutor on her home patio, and the primary witness in the front seat of his police SUV.

It is reassuring to see that the justice system is continuing to operate relatively smoothly under difficult circumstances. It is also comforting to observe how seriously some courts are taking their ongoing responsibility to provide transparent and accessible justice.

The Virtues of Remote Access to the Supreme Court

A guest post by Lawrence Friedman

Writing in The Hill, Jonathan Turley argues that, in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, government should not stop working simply because members of Congress or the U.S. Supreme Court cannot meet in person. He suggests, for example, that the Court could hold televised arguments with only counsel and the justices present. This is in contrast to Chief Justice John Roberts’s decision “to suspend all further arguments,” despite a docket of cases that Turley rightly characterizes as of “enormous national importance, from health care to gun rights to immigration.” As he puts it, “because justices oppose cameras in its chambers, the business of the Supreme Court has now largely come to a grinding halt.”

Of course, there is nothing in the Constitution that prevents the Supreme Court from operating virtually or televising oral arguments—the framers could not have imagined modern communications technology. Rather, the obstacle today remains the justices themselves. As retired Justice Anthony Kennedy once observed, there is a concern that the justices would not be able to refrain from “saying something for a sound bite.”

But the justices are not the only ones worried about the effect of remote access to oral arguments. Responding to Turley, Jonathan Grove contends that, because “the judicial branch is the only branch for which rigorous argument is still the business of the day,” cameras would threaten to turn the Court’s work into “source material for our watered-down ‘infotainment’ industry and angry Twitter partisans.” Further, he insists that the Court’s work is not essential in a time of crisis: “With some notable exceptions, meeting the immediate needs of citizens is a job that falls to state and local governments and, to a lesser extent, the executive branch. … Our constitutional system will not collapse if [the legislative and judicial] branches end up having to take extra time off.”

The problem with Grove’s argument, at least as it applies to the Court, is that, while we expect and hope the resolution of the disputes before the justices will be appropriately deliberative and thoughtful, that does not mean the work is less urgent. As of this writing, we are awaiting further clarity on a wide array of issues currently pending, including cases addressing the scope of the president’s ability to withhold information from Congress. This is an issue of particular importance at the moment, not just as it relates to Congressional oversight, but more immediately as it concerns President Trump’s recent suggestion that he has no constitutional obligation to share with Congress certain information related to the allocation of million of dollars under the new federal economic stabilization law.

Moreover, there is something odd about the argument that, were the public to have access to oral arguments before the Supreme Court – arguably, the least influential part of the appellate process – neither the justices not the advocates before them would be able to resist the temptation to grandstand. Many state high courts have experimented with televising oral arguments, and there is no evidence that either the judges or the attorneys treat the occasion with less seriousness, or that it has affected the sense of decorum that traditionally attends appellate arguments.

At the end of the day, we have passed the point at which it can be denied that the Supreme Court and its decisions have become more central to American life than the framers could possibly have imagined. It remains for others to debate whether this is a salutary development. The federal government in the past century has evolved to operate in ways the framers did not explicitly contemplate. One result has been conflicts about the separation of powers between the legislative and executive branches, and between the federal and state governments, which lawmakers and citizens alike expect the Supreme Court to resolve—and this is not to mention the myriad and important individual rights issues on the Court’s docket.

To the extent the Court has become the decisionmaker of last resort, the American people would benefit from seeing at least a glimpse of the way in which it works. Such access might provide some assurance to citizens who may question the Court’s role, or the pledge of its members to resolve the matters before them based upon argument and reason, rather than partisan affiliation. In the end, opportunities for the American people to see for themselves what the justices do could well enhance the respect upon which the Court depends for its legitimacy.

Courts embracing video in wake of coronavirus pandemic

With coronavirus spreading worldwide, courts are increasingly closing their physical spaces and relying on video technology to keep the wheels of justice moving. The UK Supreme Court has equipped itself with high-definition cameras for livestreaming. In the US, both state and federal courts are effectively closing their courthouses and moving to videoconferencing for at least certain types of hearings.

Time will tell whether this shift portends a larger move to court-centered online dispute resolution, or whether courts will revert to their traditional courtroom operations once the health crisis is over. My sense is that it will be some of both. Courts are highly unlikely to jettison the social grandeur of the courthouse entirely, and of course no video can replace the physical intimacy of a jury trial or an evidentiary hearing. At the same time, courts would be wise to use this moment as an opportunity to craft a form of public online dispute resolution for appropriate types of cases — a form of resolution that is as (or more) effective, cheaper, and more trustworthy than private ODR.

There will be much more to say in this story as it develops. Stay healthy and sane, everyone.