Many state and local courts do have cameras in the courtroom (unlike most of their federal counterparts), but other forms of technology are still frequently verboten. Some courts prohibit cellphones, laptops, and, in the traffic court I once attended, reading the newspaper.
Yet slowly, with much weeping and gnashing of teeth, some enlightened folks in Massachusetts are introducing a local court to the joys of web cams and unnecessarily detailed twitter posts.
Spurred on by a large grant from the James S. and James L. Knight Foundation, the OpenCourt Project officially began on Monday at the Quincy District Court.
Seriously though, OpenCourt is pretty cool. How does it work?
Here’s an explanation (via Law.com):
The business of a bustling courtroom in Quincy District Court began streaming live over the web for anyone to see. The courtroom, which usually does not allow reporters to use even computers, will now welcome laptops, iPads, and smartphones, and will encourage live blogging, tweeting, and Facebooking.
It’s all part of an experiment court officials around the country hope will help establish suggested guidelines for courts as they grapple with how to use digital technology and how to accommodate citizen journalists and bloggers.
This project’s breadth makes it special: OpenCourt not only aims to make the court’s processes transparent through video, it’s also about giving citizens a view of the courts through other social media outlets.
John Davidow, the program’s executive producer, succinctly summed up his goal:
“Historically, courtrooms were built in the center of town, where people could come and go, but as life has become more complicated people have become more and more removed from the courts,” Davidow said.
“The goal is really to come up with the best practices of how to use digital technology to bring the courts closer to the public.”
And Quincy isn’t the only jurisdiction trying to increase video friendliness in court. On the federal side, the Northern District of California wants to allow cameras in some civil cases (although the Supreme Court wasn’t too keen on the idea).
The district’s recently retired chief judge, Vaughn Walker, caught some flack last month for playing a three-minute video clip from the Proposition 8 trial during his lectures. During the Ninth Circuit appeal for the anti-gay-marriage law, anyone could watch a live video stream of the hearing online (and liveblog it).
Of course, if everyone liked the idea of adding cameras and semi-cutting-edge technology to the mix, well, this wouldn’t be an article about attorneys:
The court has had training sessions for lawyers to show them dead zones in the courtroom where they can have conversations that won’t be picked up by microphones, but some are still concerned that their private talks with clients could be recorded and come back to haunt them.
That’s a reasonable concern, as is the increasingly unavoidable question of how to handle jurors using “portable electronic devices,” aka iPhones, during trial. Though I’m not convinced by some of the other worries mentioned in the Law.com and Boston Globe articles:
Norfolk District Attorney Michael Morrissey said he is concerned that the cameras could discourage victims of domestic violence or stalking from going to court to seek protections and that information about gang investigations, including witness identifications, could become public.
Last time I checked, courts are already public. If a judge does need to close a court, he can turn off the camera. And as anyone who’s seen The Wire knows, gang members can adequately intimidate potential witnesses without any digital help.
In the end, I’m not sure how many non-attorneys will want to watch a wide-angle shot of people a drab room speaking in a monotone that would make Live Free, Die Hard seem dull. But that’s justice in action. Take it or leave it.
Christopher Danzig is a writer in Oakland, California. He previously covered legal technology for InsideCounsel magazine. Follow Chris on Twitter @chrisdanzig or email him at [email protected]. You can read more of his work at chrisdanzig.com.