Reporters Committee Policy Analyst Melissa Wasser stressed the need for greater public access to federal courts during the COVID-19 pandemic while testifying at a congressional hearing on Thursday.
Wasser’s testimony before the House Subcommittee on Courts, Intellectual Property, and the Internet marked the Reporters Committee’s latest effort to maintain press freedom and government transparency throughout the course of the pandemic.
“Press and public access to judicial proceedings and court records is no less important during times of crisis,” Wasser said.
Wasser was one of four witnesses to testify during the hearing, titled, “Federal Courts During the Covid-19 Pandemic: Best Practices, Opportunities for Innovation, and Lessons for the Future.” Other witnesses included Chief Justice Bridget Mary McCormack of the Michigan Supreme Court, Judge David Campbell of the U.S. District Court for the District of Arizona, and Jeremy Fogel, a former federal judge who is now the executive director of the Berkeley Judicial Institute.
In response to COVID-19, Wasser explained that the federal judiciary has taken proactive steps to fight the spread of the disease while maintaining public access, such as holding court remotely while allowing the use of teleconferencing for people to tune in to civil proceedings. While Wasser acknowledged the actions taken by the federal courts to “facilitate public access to these proceedings,” she urged the federal judiciary to continue to ensure court access, to follow the Reporters Committee’s recommendations for better practices and to preserve these advances toward greater transparency once the current crisis is over.
In written testimony submitted to Congress, Wasser highlighted that remote access to court hearings has demonstrated public interest in federal court operations, noting many more people have been able to tune in to court proceedings than would normally be allowed in the courtroom. According to SCOTUSblog, roughly 500,000 people tuned in to live-streamed oral arguments of two recent Supreme Court cases concerning President Trump’s tax returns. By the Reporters Committee’s own numbers, an estimated 1.9 million people have listened to at least one of the Supreme Court’s recorded oral arguments online, compared to the 50 members of the public who normally make it into the courtroom.
Despite this increased access, leadership from Congress is needed to regulate remote access to judicial proceedings.
“Guidance and support from Congress would help broaden remote access to proceedings at all levels of the federal judiciary,” Wasser testified, “and ensure that these advances in transparency survive both in future crises and become a fixture of public access to judicial proceedings generally.”
Wasser suggested that Congress pass three pending pieces of legislation — H.R. 6017, H.R. 5645, and H.R. 6642 — all of which would increase public access to federal courts. She also advised Congress to standardize public notice of remote proceedings, and to remove “barriers for the broadcast or streaming of proceedings in the federal judiciary.”
“In sum,” Wasser concluded, “the Reporters Committee believes that increased public access to the nation’s federal courts, including the Supreme Court, is, on balance, an important step to promote accountability, transparency, efficiency, and an informed electorate.”
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.