Trump Issues Distract at House Hearing on Federal Court Access

WASHINGTON (CN) – Open-court advocates pressed members of Congress on Tuesday to allow cameras in federal courtrooms, among other reforms that will grease public access.

The hearing of the House Subcommittee on Courts, Intellectual Property and the Internet comes after more than 100,000 people tuned in to watch the livestream of Ninth Circuit oral arguments concerning President Donald Trump’s executive order on immigration.

“It’s a much more direct form of democracy when people can see and hear for themselves, just as our founders envisioned, being able to stop by court on their way about their daily activities,” the committee heard Tuesday from Mickey Osterreicher, general counsel at the National Press Photographers Association. “Unfortunately these days that can’t happen, but we do have the capability of that type of communication through audio/visual coverage.”

Osterreicher said there is no reason for courts, especially appellate courts, to remain open to only those who can find a seat in their courtrooms, especially in the era of readily available livestreams and broadcasts.

Most members of the committee agreed, at least when it came to appellate courts. Rep. Ted Poe, a Texas Republican and former judge, praised the idea, saying it would be invaluable to lawyers, law students and people around the world who could catch a glimpse of the U.S. judicial system.

“I think in this day and time, it’s been said by many people, [it’s important] that we show the world the most important court in the world, the Supreme Court of the United States,” Poe said.

While most members of the committee seemed to agree with Osterreicher, some did express concerns that beaming court proceedings into the world could bring privacy concerns for witnesses and victims, or could impact decisions by causing judges and lawyers to “perform” for the cameras.

Bringing up the famous example of the O.J. Simpson trial, Rep. Tom Marino, R-Pa., said that allowing cameras to capture the proceedings turned the event into a “circus.”

“Anything that we can prevent from swaying a decision other than the facts before the jury, I think, is most paramount,” Marino said.

Osterreicher allowed he would be open to just allowing broadcasts of appellate proceedings and giving trial judges digression to stop the cameras from rolling during some testimony. Still, he insisted the idea that judges and lawyers would change their behavior because of the cameras is overblown.

“I think for the most part, eventually, people get used to the fact that they’re there,” Osterreicher said.

The committee also briefly touched on the possibility of allowing private companies to overhaul the Pacer database of federal court documents. Short for Public Access to Court Electronic Records, the Pacer system is routinely criticized as expensive and not user friendly.

Another topic the committee broached involved the fact that the justices on the U.S. Supreme Court are the only federal judges in the country who not subject to the Code of Conduct for United States Judges.

“In a perfect world the judiciary would quietly appoint a committee and promulgate a code of its own based on the Code of Conduct for U.S. Judges, but it hasn’t done that,” Indiana Law School professor Charles Geyh told the committee.

On this count, Congress could take legislative action to force its hand.

“And I do think that if we’re concerned about the legitimacy of the judiciary,” Geyh said, “we really ought to think seriously about insisting that they take that step.”

The president’s run-ins with the judicial system proved unavoidable as well, with Capitol Hill still buzzing about the resignation Monday night of Michal Flynn, Trump’s national security adviser who was caught lying about his contact with the Russian government.

Several Democrats peppered the witnesses with questions about Trump’s tweets over the past weeks that were critical of the judicial system, especially the federal judge who halted his executive order barring immigration from seven Muslim-majority countries.

Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, D-N.Y., used his time to criticize the timing of the hearing, saying the committee would be better off investigating conflicts of interest or Flynn’s resignation.

“It just seems to me that there are more pressing issues related to the existential threat that this administration presents to our democracy that we could be spending our time on,” Jeffries said at the hearing.

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