Free Speech Advocates Request Transparency While Courts Are Closed

April 7, 2020 by Tom Ramstack
Closeup of gavel in court room. (Dreamstime/TNS)

WASHINGTON – Free speech advocates are expressing concern that criminal proceedings being held by closed circuit video during the coronavirus pandemic threaten to cut off the people’s right to know what’s happening in federal and state courts.

A federal judiciary policy announced last week allows judges, attorneys and defendants to appear remotely at pretrial and sentencing hearings.

Many courts throughout the nation are closed as they prepare for the worst of the coronavirus’ onslaught in the next few weeks. Others continue with criminal proceedings but have postponed all civil cases.

Their video and teleconference hearings are rarely open to the media or the public.

The U.S. Judicial Conference, which was established by Congress to set policy guidelines for administration of courts, said in a statement that it was “evaluating this issue…”

The courts have never faced such a severe epidemic previously, meaning procedures adopted during the coronavirus outbreak could represent a long-term contingency for responding to emergencies.

The Judicial Conference also is granting a temporary exception to its rule banning cameras in courtrooms.

The free press advocacy group Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press has compiled a list of recommendations to ensure transparency while courthouses are closed.

The group recommends that members of the media continue to be allowed into courtrooms closed to the general public. The media also should be given access to live video or recordings of court proceedings, the Reporters Committee says.

They want to be able to dial in to listen to teleconferences. In addition, they suggest the courts give them advance notice of postponed proceedings.

The First Amendment Coalition, another media advocacy group, is asking California Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye to develop guidelines for keeping courts open for news reporters.

The state courts are exempted from the governor’s March 19 order that all non-essential organizations shut down until the pandemic passes.

A letter the Coalition wrote to the chief justice says “criminal proceedings, such as arraignments and sentencing, that take place in courtrooms or via video must in some way be open to the public and press.”

The letter adds that “court records must remain publicly available. Access will come to a screeching halt if clerks’ offices are closed to the public.”

Court clerks nationwide acknowledge they are getting requests from journalists and advocacy organizations for record searches but add that they are limited in their ability to respond. Many of them are working remotely from home, which prevents them from searching their courts’ databases.

Philadelphia city officials recently sent out notices that they are “suspending the deadlines of all pending and incoming Right-to-Know requests until normal operations resume.”

New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy signed legislation late last month that eliminates the deadlines for clerks to approve or deny requests for court records. He explained that a staffing shortage from coronavirus means the clerks cannot perform their regular duties.

Internationally, the clampdown on the media is even more bleak. Journalists in several Middle Eastern countries, China and Latin America have faced arrest or censorship after their news reports criticized their governments for their coronavirus responses.

In The News




Mississippi Supreme Court Overturns Successful Ballot Initiative
In The States
Mississippi Supreme Court Overturns Successful Ballot Initiative
May 16, 2021
by Dan McCue

JACKSON, Miss. - The Mississippi Supreme Court on Friday overturned a voter-approved ballot initiative to legalize medical marijuana, holding that the election law governing ballot referendums is out of date. The decision, which could halt other citizen-led efforts to amend the state constitution, struck down a... Read More

Justices Consider Hearing a Case on 'Most Offensive Word'
Supreme Court
Justices Consider Hearing a Case on 'Most Offensive Word'

WASHINGTON (AP) — Robert Collier says that during the seven years he worked as an operating room aide at Parkland Memorial Hospital in Dallas, white nurses called him and other Black employees "boy." Management ignored two large swastikas painted on a storage room wall. And for... Read More

Trump Administration Officials to Testify on Jan. 6 Riot
Trump Administration Officials to Testify on Jan. 6 Riot

WASHINGTON (AP) — Two senior Trump administration officials plan to defend their actions during the Jan. 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol when they appear before Congress, with former acting Defense Secretary Christopher Miller standing behind every decision he made that day. Miller will tell the... Read More

Corruption Cases Against Public Officials, Law Enforcement Rising
Corruption Cases Against Public Officials, Law Enforcement Rising
May 4, 2021
by TWN Staff

Prosecutions for "official" corruption -- a catch-all meaning bribery, graft, conflicts of interest and other violations by federal, state, local officials and law enforcement -- have been rising steadily during the first six months of FY 2021, according to a report from the Transactional Records Access... Read More

$1.6 MIllion to Go to Protesters at 2017 Inauguration
$1.6 MIllion to Go to Protesters at 2017 Inauguration
May 3, 2021
by Tom Ramstack

WASHINGTON - The District of Columbia government this week agreed to pay $1.6 million to settle two lawsuits by protesters during the January 2017 presidential inauguration of Donald Trump. In one of the lawsuits, six demonstrators represented by the ACLU of the District of Columbia will... Read More

Feds Raid Giuliani's Home, Office, Escalating Criminal Probe
Law Enforcement
Feds Raid Giuliani's Home, Office, Escalating Criminal Probe

NEW YORK (AP) — Federal agents raided Rudy Giuliani's Manhattan home and office Wednesday, seizing computers and cellphones in a major escalation of the Justice Department's investigation into the business dealings of former President Donald Trump's personal lawyer. Giuliani, the 76-year-old former New York City mayor... Read More

News From The Well
scroll top