Thirteen Federal Courts to Start Livestreaming Hearings

(AP Photo/Brennan Linsley, File)

(CN) — In announcing Tuesday it will give the public access to noteworthy cases via audio livestream, the federal court system will move a few rungs closer to the 21st century — at least in 13 districts.

These livestreams will be available on the courts’ designated YouTube channels in real-time, the U.S. Courts said Tuesday. 

“While the pilot temporarily suspends a prohibition on broadcasting federal court proceedings in the designated courts, the livestreams may not be recorded or rebroadcast,” the federal judiciary said. The Judicial Conference of the United States adopted a prohibition against “broadcasting, televising, recording, or taking photographs in the courtroom and areas immediately adjacent thereto” in 1972 for both criminal and civil cases.

U.S. District Judge Audrey Fleissig chairs the courts’ national policy-making body, which authorized the test program earlier this year. Its purpose, she said in a statement, is to study the livestreaming civil proceeding audio from policy, technical, operational, budgetary and administrative perspectives.

The pilot is also a nod to the federal judiciary’s commitment to transparency and increasing public access to court proceedings, Fleissig said, noting this is “an issue that has taken on even greater importance in the last year” as many courts have been forced to restrict in-person public access to courthouses due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

“At the same time, we want to develop the best practices for the process and ensure that any new practices do not compromise the integrity of federal court proceedings. That is why we are taking a measured and deliberative approach by working with volunteer pilot courts,” Fleissig said.

The move is a big one for reporters across the country who will have a much easier time covering high-profile cases, said Genelle Belmas, an associate journalism professor at the University of Kansas. The Kansas Federal Court is participating in the program.

“This is a big step in the right direction for making material available, making content available to reporters,” she said in a phone interview, adding that federal courts are just beginning to “dip a toe in the water” when it comes to expanding virtual proceedings in line with the appellate courts. 

“Journalists complain a lot about not having sufficient access and this makes it so that there are fewer excuses,” Belmas said.

She said people will expect the virtual access made available due to Covid-19 to remain after the pandemic as people are now “used to being able to access whatever they need online.” She added that up until this point, the courts have been reticent to consider permitting audio and live streaming. 

“Why that’s the case, I’m not exactly sure,” Belmas said.

Since the 1972 camera prohibition, virtual proceeding streaming has been intermittently dabbled with.

Zoe Tillman, a senior law and politics reporter at Buzzfeed News, expressed excitement about the current pilot Tuesday, referring to one such predecessor. 

“[V]ideo is the dream, but it’s heartening to see the courts revisiting streaming after ending a video pilot project in 2015 and not recommending it,” the reporter said in a tweet. Fourteen federal courts volunteered as part of a video pilot from 2011-2015.

On March 15, 2016, the Judicial Conference received a Committee on Court Administration and Case Management’s report on the trial and agreed not to make any changes to the conference’s cameras policy, citing, “no persuasive evidence of a benefit.”

Jules Epstein, a professor of law at Temple University in Philadelphia, questioned the conclusion of the video pilot.

“I don’t know what metric they used when they said it had no value. It has value when people can watch and see the story of a trial,” he said in a call.

Epstein also explained one reason the courts might be hesitant to stream proceedings via video.

“Although, I don’t fear it myself, the fear is that lawyers will posture more,” he said.

The court system noted Tuesday that the pilot at hand “excludes trials and civil proceedings involving jurors and witnesses, and also sealed, confidential, and classified materials.”

Epstein pointed out that there are some shortcomings to audio proceedings like listeners will not be able to see evidence that is presented before the court. He also said that hours-long proceedings, as opposed to those that take weeks, would be likely to attract more viewers. 

“Listening for those could be really informative,” he said. “And also ensure public access.”

Malissa Torres, a democratic party chair in Live Oak County, Texas, agreed.

“An informed public or electorate to include following the bench is sorely needed in our democracy,” she said in a Twitter direct message Tuesday.

Belmas added that the advancements in technology can’t come fast enough.

“The fact that the courts are engaging in this, I think, is 10 years too late. They should have been doing this all along because I think it does increase the possibility for access,” she said, noting last week, the Northern District of Georgia, which is already participating in the program, streamed audio of a hearing challenging the results of the presidential election that attracted more than 42,000 listeners.

“Your average civil court proceeding and the District Court of Kansas is not going to happen. But, that said, it would be nice for there to be more than two reporters there,” Belmas said.

Belmas hopes that at some point recordings of civil proceedings will also be made available in addition to livestreams. 

“For reporters who can’t make it or people can’t make it to the court itself,” she said.

Aside from the Northern District of Georgia, the Eastern District of Missouri has also already started the pilot. 

It audio-streamed a status conference in September in a lawsuit brought in 2016 by the federal government against the Ferguson Police Department for alleged use of unlawful force, unjustified stop and searches, among other rights violations. 

“The remaining courts will be livestreaming by February 2021,” the federal judiciary said, noting that audio streaming of civil proceedings under the pilot “requires the parties’ consent and is subject to the presiding judge’s discretion.”

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

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