It's time for American courtrooms to open their digital doors. Laptops, smart phones and video cameras are still a rare sight in our criminal courts, and by suppressing this technology we're missing an opportunity to build a more transparent and more just system.
The slow, slow, slow creep of communications technology into courtrooms isn't surprising, since the legal world isn't exactly known for embracing innovation.
Most judges and lawyers like to line their offices with leather-bound books, not flat-screen monitors displaying data and news feeds. You don't need to look much further than the colored-pencil courtroom sketch to find a symbol of a system out of touch with its environment.
And while cases like the recent Casey Anthony murder trial in Florida tend to restart the age-old debate of courtroom video, it isn't high-profile cases that I'm concerned about. It's the everyday grind of the system.
In fact, it would be a huge step forward if we could televise every case except Casey Anthony.
The Sixth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution guarantees the right to a public trial, and I'll admit that courts technically achieve this by leaving their doors unlocked during business hours.
But shouldn't our goal be something more? Perhaps we should aim not just for public courts, but accessible courts.
A truly accessible court would offer streaming video of every public hearing. It would have a website with a real-time docket. A Twitter feed would announce findings and developments.
When the resource-strapped media finds time to cover court activities, reporters in an accessible court would be allowed to blog and post from their laptops and smartphones.
And there are a few reasons to be optimistic.
The OpenCourt experiment in Massachusetts could be clearing a path toward this more accessible court. The project, run by National Public Radio-affiliate WBUR and funded by the Knight News Challenge, is providing a live video stream of all public hearings and trials in the Quincy District Court.
A video archive is available online. The courtroom is also open to laptops and smart phones, so reporters can offer the public a real-time perspective of proceedings.
A few other courts around the country have opened up as well. An informal survey last year by the U.S. Judicial Conference found that 41 of 94 federal district courts allow smart phones, though many of these have strict restrictions on use. The Judicial Conference goes on to offer some possible rules for judges to allow smartphones and laptops on their terms.
The U.S. Supreme Court could lead a transparency movement from the top by televising its much-followed oral arguments, but don't expect the justices to budge anytime soon.
For decades, the Supremes have deflected calls for cameras, saying they would lead to “grandstanding” (as John Roberts recently claimed) and that soundbites cause “mis-education of the public” (Antonin Scalia in 2009) . Matt Sundquist posted a great review of the long-running debate over cameras in the Supreme Court last year on SCOTUSBlog.
Local judges voice similar concerns about cameras in the courtroom: that the lawyers, witnesses and jury would be distracted by their presence, and that outcomes would somehow change.
This is Luddite nonsense. If cameras remind juries and lawyers that the world is watching, we can improve our system by maintaining a higher standard for proceedings.
There's no logic behind allowing notebooks in our courtroom but not netbooks.
By blocking communications from the courtroom, we're throwing a roadblock in front of the press and stifling citizen interaction in a public institution.
Streaming web video is the same. Even when there's not massive media interest in a case, video can make hearings accessible to people (victims, defendants, attorneys, students and concerned citizens) who aren't able to attend in person.
We, the taxpayers, own our court system. We should demand more transparency and accessibility. The technology is available and affordable, but courts are dragging their feet.
As consumers, we wouldn't support a company as opaque and broken as our criminal courts. We deserve better.
Matt Kelley is the online communications manager at the Innocence Project. Views expressed here are his alone. He welcomes comments from readers.