In a letter sent Wednesday afternoon, the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press urged both House and Senate leadership to ensure public and press access to judicial proceedings during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
Because “[t]he outbreak has changed the daily operations of federal courts across the country,” the letter reads, Congress should “include measures to preserve and promote press and public access to court records and proceedings in its next pandemic response bill.”
The Reporters Committee asked Congress to provide funding in the next pandemic response bill to encourage: remote access to oral arguments and similar proceedings; media access to court teleconferences; a suspension of fees for PACER, the federal courts’ online document repository; and prompt notice of postponement of proceedings.
As courts have closed to public access, remote access to oral arguments and similar proceedings is increasingly important. Congressional funding could ensure that courts can provide live video, or, at a minimum, live audio access to, for instance, appellate arguments.
Additionally, the Judicial Conference last week authorized federal judges to permit press and public access to court proceedings via videoconference or teleconference during the COVID-19 crisis. Congress should provide funding to make it easy for courts to provide this access and earmark pandemic relief funds to ensure that recordings and transcripts of these conferences be made electronically available to the public as soon as proceedings end.
Congress should provide funds to allow for the suspension of PACER fees. Normally, members of the public could view court records for free through access terminals at now-closed courthouses. PACER is now the only way for the public to view these documents, and access to it should be free.
Finally, as courts postpone proceedings as a result of COVID-19, Congress should make sure they have the financial resources to provide prompt notification of these postponements and continuances to the public and news media.
The Reporters Committee continues to monitor developments in the government’s response to the pandemic and may make recommendations for additional congressional action in future legislation. These four funding earmarks, however, would help courts provide meaningful public access as their operations change due to the pandemic.
Please see our comprehensive set of COVID-19 resources here.
The Reporters Committee regularly files friend-of-the-court briefs and its attorneys represent journalists and news organizations pro bono in court cases that involve First Amendment freedoms, the newsgathering rights of journalists and access to public information. Stay up-to-date on our work by signing up for our monthly newsletter and following us on Twitter or Instagram.
Photo by Andrew Bossi