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.

U.S. Supreme Court closes in response to coronavirus threat

SCOTUSBlog reports:

Shortly after the White House and Congress announced that they would close to the public due to increasing concern over the coronavirus, the Supreme Court this afternoon followed suit. In a brief notice posted on the court’s website, the court announced that it would close to the public as of 4:30 p.m. today and would remain closed “until further notice.” However, the court indicated that its building would “remain open for official business” and that filing deadlines would not be extended.

The closure comes during what would normally be a relatively quiet period at the court: The justices wrapped up their February argument session last week and are not scheduled to hear oral arguments again until March 23. There has been no word from the court on whether the March argument session will take place as scheduled and, if so, whether members of the public will be admitted to watch the argument. Yesterday the public health department in Washington, D.C., recommended that “non-essential” gatherings of more than a thousand people be canceled as one way to fight the spread of the virus. The courtroom seats approximately 400 people.

The notice announcing the closure indicated that the Supreme Court’s building was being closed to the public because of “concern for the health and safety of the public and Supreme Court employees.” Two of the justices are in their eighties: Justice Stephen Breyer is 81, while Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg will be 87 next week. Justice Clarence Thomas is 71, while three more justices are in their sixties: Justice Samuel Alito is 69, and Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Sonia Sotomayor are both 65.

Gabe Roth, the transparency advocate from Fix the Court, sees this as another argument for livestreaming. He sent out the following press release this afternoon:

Given the crowds that often gather in and around the Supreme Court, not to mention the advanced age of several of the justices, it’s the right call to close the building to the public until further notice.
That said, if this state of affairs continues through March 23 – the next time the justices hear arguments – the Court should at a minimum permit the public to listen to a livestream of argument audio from its website.
We believe the Court already has this capacity, as it streamed a Justice Scalia memorial service in Nov. 2016, and any technological gaps could be filled in by the nearby D.C. Circuit, which since Sept. 2018 has offered live online audio for all of its hearings.
Live audio is the smartest way to balance the now-competing concerns of public safety and public access.

New Hampshire courts expand electronic case filing

New Hampshire’s court system is expanding the reach of its electronic filing program, with the addition of civil cases and name-change cases this year. It’s a relatively small amount of new cases (3700), at least in comparison to larger jurisdictions, but it shows the growth and success of the overall New Hampshire program. Of particular interest to transparency enthusiasts is that kiosks in every courthouse allow the public to access the electronic filings of any non-sealed case.

Transparency and resource demands combine to squeeze the Maryland courts

The Capital Gazette reports on a loophole in Maryland’s electronic filing system, which allows attorneys to designate documents as “confidential” without filing a separate motion to seal with the court. Using the designation effective prevents interested parties, including the media, from accessing the court filings.

Court documents are presumed to be publicly available, and normally a party must move the court to seal specific documents and provide good reasons for the request. It appears that when Maryland moved to electronic filing in 2014, the system was set up to allow attorneys in cases with exposing sealing orders to designate certain documents as confidential. Lawyers are warned not to designate documents as confidential unless they are covered by a rule or statute. It appears, however, that many documents that should be public have been improperly designated.

The courts do not monitor electronic filing designations on a regular basis, which is probably sensible given the court system’s limited resources. But some greater allocation of resources — either in monitoring or in fixing the electronic loophole — may now be warranted.

More on the Supreme Court’s opacity

Perhaps building on Fix the Court’s announcement of its transparency report cards for the federal courts (the timing seems more than coincidental), the Associated Press has a story describing the areas about which the Supreme Court steadfastly declines to provide basic information about its operations to the public. Some of the examples are silly but illustrative, like refuses to name the company that installed the Court’s new drapes. Others are more serious, like the lack of courtroom cameras and limited details about judicial travel and recusal.

As I noted in a recent post, the right level of court system transparency is that which is calculated to assure the public that the courts are operating in a trustworthy manner. If the Court were more transparent about its most basic operations, it would be in a better position to justify those areas in which secrecy was truly warranted.

What is the right level of court system transparency?

Court transparency is essential, but it cannot be one-size-fits-all proposition. Here’s why.

Several recent articles in the popular press and academic literature have grappled with the issue of transparency. Professor Scott Dodson has written about the “open-courts norm” in the United States which, “accentuated by the First Amendment,” guarantees that criminal (and in most cases, civil) proceedings are open to the public. And, channeling Homer Simpson, Professor David Pozen has described government transparency “as the cause of, and solution to, a remarkable range of problems.” Outside the academic world, organizations such as Fix the Court are issuing their own transparency report cards to draw attention to the refusal of some courts (including the U.S. Supreme Court) to broadcast oral arguments.

These commentators are on to something important. As public organizations, courts are expected to be broadly transparent about their activities. But not all forms of court transparency are the same. Some types of transparency are necessary to the courts’ survival, while other types of transparency would actually undermine the courts’ operations. It is worth considering why.

Continue reading “What is the right level of court system transparency?”

New bill would increase disclosures regarding federal judicial travel

Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) has introduced a new bill in the Senate, dubbed the Judicial Travel Accountability Act. (It has not yet received a number.) The bill would increase the financial disclosures put on federal judges regarding their travel. Bloomberg Law reports:

The Ethics in Government Act requires that judges’ disclosures include only the identity of the source and a brief description of reimbursements over $390. But judges don’t have to identify the dollar value of the reimbursement, and are exempted entirely from reporting any gifts in the form of “food, lodging, or entertainment received as personal hospitality,” Whitehouse said in a news release.

The Judicial Travel Accountability Act would require “judicial officers’” financial disclosure statements to include the dollar amount of transportation, lodging, and meal expense reimbursements and gifts, as well as a detailed description of any meetings and events attended.

The bill calls for disclosures to be filed within 15 days of a trip and to be made available on a public website. The Supreme Court doesn’t post its financial disclosures online and they are made available only once a year

In an ordinary political cycle, it would be easier to see this is as a truly bipartisan effort to promote public confidence in the judiciary, akin perhaps to the regularly introduced “Sunshine in the Courtroom” Acts that seek to bring cameras and other transparency mechanisms into the courthouse. But this is not an ordinary political cycle, and it is hard to see this bill as anything other than a political ploy. Start with Senator Whitehouse, whose public treatment of the Supreme Court has become increasingly unhinged as of late, and who chose to begin his remarks with a focus on the Supreme Court even though its Justices represent less than one-tenth of one percent of the entire federal judiciary. Then there is the list of co-sponsors: 12 Democrats (including two current presidential hopefuls) and only one Republican. It’s not difficult to see this bill as primarily an effort to turn the courts into a political football once again.

It is a dangerous thing when politicians drag the court system into their partisan squabbles, and it is in my view a significant reason why the public increasingly sees the courts as political. But while the federal courts cannot stop Congress from introducing pointed legislation, it can render such legislative chicanery moot by adopting its own reporting practices. Put differently, if the court system itself required judges to report more fully their travel junkets, rather than waiting for Congress to mandate it, courts would reap the benefits of increased public confidence and would not find themselves dragged into the political muck. More on this point in a future post.