After her son was arrested for allegedly throwing stones at the police in a protest against racial injustice, Tanisha Brown went to the courthouse in her native California town to look at her son’s charges.
She was expelled and told that the courthouse was closed to the public due to coronavirus precautions. A day later, the Kern County Superior Court in Bakersfield posted a notice on its website explaining how the public could request special permission from judicial officials to attend the court proceedings.
But public access issues have persisted, according to a federal lawsuit filed on behalf of Brown and several others on Friday that failed to attend hearings.
The situation in Kern County highlights the challenges that courts in the United States face in trying to balance public health protection with public access to their proceedings amid the COVID-19 outbreak.
The US Constitution guarantees the right to a public trial, but some courts have delivered lectures and other hearings without the public watching or listening. In some cases, the public was unable to participate. In other cases, the suspect’s family members, friends, or other interested residents did not know how to access special video feeds.
“The courtrooms should be completely public, anyone interested should be able to watch, and they haven’t,” said Sergio De La Pava, legal director of Defender Services in New York County, a nonprofit public defense agency. in Manhattan.
In California, a coalition of civil liberties and open government organizations sent a letter to the chief judge this month documenting numerous cases before multiple courts excluding the public from the proceedings, including that involving Brown’s son on June 10.
“We have found widespread cases of judicial secrecy,” said David Snyder, executive director of the First Amendment Coalition, based in the San Francisco Bay Area.
Brown said she was surprised when she was dismissed when her 24-year-old son, Avion Hunter, was charged with a crime for assaulting a police officer and crimes for riots, illegal assembly and opposition to arrest during a protest on June 1 over the death of George Floyd at the hands of the Minneapolis police.
“I understand you don’t want a lot of people inside,” Brown told The Associated Press, “but why can’t I go in, just one person, like his mother?”
Members of two media outlets were admitted to court for Hunter’s charges for filing requests, said Kristin Davis, spokeswoman for Kern County Superior Court.
When cases of COVID-19 started to take hold in March, many courts were closed due to concerns about staff, lawyers, defendants, jurors, witnesses, media and members of the public who all thronged in courtrooms. Many courts later began to conduct a number of remote procedures, using video feeds from defendants and lawyers from their homes or offices.
It’s unclear exactly how many people have been denied the opportunity to pursue legal proceedings because it is difficult to track the thousands of local courts in the United States, said Bill Raftery, a senior analyst with the National Center for State Courts.
“Did it happen? Yes, “said Raftery. But he said the court is trying to balance the idea” that the courts should be as open as possible, consistent with not spreading a massive contamination. ”
At the Cook County, Illinois, Chicago home, the circuit court includes a link on its website to a YouTube channel for everyone to watch their performance. The video feed contains a warning that people who record or photograph the live streamed sessions may be punished for disregarding the court.
The remote hearings generally seem to work. But observers from voluntary courts faced technical difficulties last month during a coordinated initiative to monitor procedures, said Sharlyn Grace, executive director of the Chicago Community Bond Fund, a non-profit organization involved in the monitoring project.
Some states have also used remote civil proceedings, with mixed results.
The Missouri Supreme Court has provided an audio livestream of its out-of-court proceedings, while excluding the public, attorneys, and most judges from the courtroom. But the live stream failed at a June 15 hearing about a challenge regarding the state’s voting requirements to be used during the corona virus outbreak. About an hour later, the court posted an audio recording online.
Some courts, such as the one in New York City, have refused to post live video feeds on their websites. Instead, as the courts progressively step up proceedings, a limited number of people let in the courtroom where they can listen to audio from remote hearings or get a one-time video link to watch on their PC or smartphone, said Regan Williams, senior clerk at the Manhattan Criminal Court.
The New York settlement “may indeed be reasonable under the circumstances” to ensure that the defendants’ interests are not harmed by people who record the hearings, said Douglas Keith, counsel for the Brennan Center for Justice’s Democracy Program in New York University Law School.
But holding hearings in which the judge, defendant, lawyers, and the public are in separate places can weaken judicial accountability, he said. When people are in court, judges and lawyers may be more aware of “the weight of their responsibility,” Keith said.
In New Orleans, another city severely affected by the corona virus, courts closed to the public in June began holding the Zoom procedure.
The court website instructed the public to contact a judge’s office to obtain the access code to view certain procedures. Few people have actually done this, said Chief Justice Karen Herman of the Orleans Parish Criminal District Court.
Herman said the courts plan to reopen to the public on July 6, with limited seating due to social distance. Her courtroom will have a capacity of just 14 people, with half of the places filled by court staff, lawyers and the accused.
While spectators may try to go to court in person, “we will ask the audience to call Zoom and watch if they want to,” Herman said.
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