More and more courts are making oral arguments available on the Web
From the Spring 2005 issue of The News Media & The Law, page 31.
By Andrew Brenner
State and local courts in at least 17 states and three federal appellate courts are using the Internet to webcast oral arguments and other proceedings. Some are live, others archived and some are both.
Massachusetts is the most recent state to webcast. About 1,000 people logged onto the first public webcast May 5 to watch arguments in the Supreme Judiciary Court, the state’s highest court, said LaDonna Hatton, coordinator of program and policy development for the court. Despite some minor technical glitches “the response has been wonderful,” she said.
The idea had been around for awhile, with special interest from Chief Justice Margaret H. Marshall, but the court did not have staff or expertise to produce a webcast on its own, so it teamed up with Suffolk University Law School, Hatton said.
Plans call for making the system more user friendly by adding informational links, offering archived copies of oral arguments and boosting the number of viewers able to watch to 1,200.
“I think it’s an incredible resource for opening up government and having people who wouldn’t otherwise come . . . and sit in the courtroom . . . see what’s going on,” Hatton said.
Court webcasts are not a new phenomenon.
Since September 2001, anyone interested in arguments before the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals can see and hear the discourse with a few clicks of the mouse. The webcast is not just a local hit.
“I have received e-mails from time to time from expatriate West Virginians who are outside of the state who tune in and watch the webcast,” said Clerk of Court Rory L. Perry II, who engineers and coordinates the program.
“Cases involving significant constitutional issues and expenditures of public money” garner the most attention, he said. The number of people allowed to watch an oral argument is constrained by bandwidth restrictions to about 300 viewers at a time and in high-profile cases some viewers have been unable to gain access via computer, Perry said.
Access was an issue in a closely followed tort reform case in which arguments were held in Parkersburg, W.Va., instead of the court’s home in Charleston. There was not enough bandwidth to support the number of people who logged on to watch the webcast, Perry said. The court encounters “all the normal difficulties you might expect when trying to coordinate . . . quality audio, quality video, quality network connections and enough bandwidth to serve the potential audience,” he said.
In addition to oral arguments, the court also webcasts admissions ceremonies for new lawyers, “one of the few occasions when everybody leaves happy,” Perry said. “It’s a small thing, but I think all of these things taken together help to promote some public confidence in the judiciary.”
Before September 2001, sitting in the courtroom or using a phone-in line were the only ways to listen to oral arguments, both of which are still options.
Perry started a blog — a Web log — to track the use of webcasts in different courts around the country, and to share information on his court’s webcast. Updates to the blog are sporadic, he said.
In Indiana, where oral arguments at the Supreme Court, the Court of Appeals and Tax Court are streamed onto the Internet, the webcast led to the development of the “Courts in the Classroom” program, which teaches students of all ages about the courts, incorporating live and archived webcasts of arguments. Even some law school classes have adopted the webcasts into their curriculum, according to Dr. Elizabeth Osborn, assistant to the chief justice for court history and public education.
“The court wanted to try and make the judicial system seem more open,” Osborn said.
In addition to students, “lawyers and the press think it’s wonderful,” Osborn said of the webcasts.
Other states that stream some form of live oral argument or court proceeding on the Internet, either audio or audiovisual, on the Web include: Alaska, Florida, Kansas, Mississippi, Missouri, New Jersey, North Dakota, Ohio, South Dakota, Washington and Wisconsin.
Delaware, New Hampshire and Vermont Supreme Courts offer only archived oral arguments on their Web sites as do the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago (7th Cir.) and the U.S. Court of Appeals in San Francisco (9th Cir.).
Audio recordings of oral arguments before the U.S. Supreme Court are given to the National Archives approximately 10 months after the end of each term, and the archivist allows public access to those recordings. A private Web site, www.oyez.org, makes arguments in many of the court’s key cases available.
Most webcasts of court proceedings are found at the state level. The Delaware County Municipal Court in Ohio and the Ninth Judicial Circuit Court of Florida are the only local courts in the country to offer live webcasts of open court proceedings.
It is unclear how webcasts have affected openness in the courts, but technology allows improved court access.
“As the public expectation of information available on the web continues to increase, that pressure will also exert an influence on the appellate courts,” Perry said. “As the best practices and knowledge get transmitted throughout the country, I believe that courts will pursue additional ways to try and make their work more understandable to the public.”