Tumblelog by Soup.io
Newer posts are loading.
You are at the newest post.
Click here to check if anything new just came in.

August 14 2012

22:14

OpenCourt wins another legal challenge to online streaming in the courtroom

The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court has again ruled in favor of allowing OpenCourt to continue broadcasting online.

Since May 2011, OpenCourt — a judicial transparency project (and Knight News Challenge winner) that provides videostreams of court cases — has been broadcasting from Quincy District Court, offering online viewers a look at things like arraignments, traffic infractions, and drug cases. Last month, a local district attorney sued the court hosting OpenCourt to halt plans to begin streaming jury trials from the Quincy courthouse. In today’s ruling, the judge in that lawsuit said OpenCourt should be allowed to go forward and must be subject to the same rules that govern other news media, writing: “There is no reason to single OpenCourt out and impose on it a variety of restrictions that do not apply to other media organizations.”

This is not the first time the project faced a legal threat aimed at stopping the streaming. In March, the Supreme Judicial Court reinforced OpenCourt’s right to broadcast after the state sued to stop the project from recording and archiving court cases.

“There is a presumption that Massachusetts courts are open to media access and this ruling today clarified OpenCourt’s contention all along it should not be singled out as anything different from any other broadcast media,” said John Davidow, executive producer of OpenCourt and executive editor of new media at WBUR, the Boston public radio station where OpenCourt is a project. Davidow said he’s pleased with the ruling because it not only strengthens OpenCourt’s position but also furthers the project’s goals of transparency. “This isn’t about OpenCourt,” Davidow said. “This is really about the public’s access to what goes on in their courtrooms.”

In July, OpenCourt was scheduled to begin broadcasting jury trials in Quincy. Norfolk County DA Michael Morrissey sued the Quincy District Court justices, arguing that OpenCourt needed concrete guidelines from a special judiciary committee for broadcasting within the court that would protect victims, witnesses, and minors.

Davidow said Tuesday’s ruling would allow OpenCourt to move forward with plans to stream those cases from courtroom A at Quincy District Court. Davidow said the cameras and other preparations were set for recording in the jury room prior to the lawsuit — meaning OpenCourt will be ready to livestream once jury cases are scheduled. Davidow said streaming jury trials is important because those are the cases most of the public is familiar with. “The public, outside perspective of the court is trials,” Davidow said. “It’s the essence of what the public thinks takes place in courthouses across the commonwealth.”

In denying Morissey’s request, Justice Margot Botsford said the project can operate under preliminary guidelines that were put in place as a result of the decision in the earlier OpenCourt case. In that case, Commonwealth v. Barnes, the court said a special committee must create guidelines for OpenCourt to broadcast and archive court cases. In June, a preliminary set of guidelines for OpenCourt was released by the Quincy District Court. The final rules from the judiciary media committee are expected to be drafted by October.

In a statement, Morrissey said his office may seek to stop OpenCourt from recording on a case-by-case basis in order to protect victims and witnesses. From the statement:

The judiciary media committee is currently meeting and presumably working on the guidelines that this injunction asked the court to wait for before adding a second session to the live streaming. We hope that committee will expedite that process, and that the rules will provide appropriate protections so that violations of victim privacy, as occurred so many times in the Barnes case, do not occur.

May 03 2011

17:00

Reality TV: OpenCourt has begun its livestream of the judicial system

OpenCourt is about as real as reality TV can get when it doesn’t involve Kardashians, real housewives, or people trapped on an island. That’s because OpenCourt, which launched yesterday, offers a view inside the legal system — specifically, the Quincy District Court here in Massachusetts, where traffic infractions, drug cases, and arraignments of all kinds now unfold not only in the courtroom, but also via streaming video.

The streaming is the next step in what was formerly known as Order in the Court 2.0, the winner of a 2010 Knight News Challenge grant and a project with an explicit goal of making the courts as transparent as the other branches of government. It’s something that seems simple as a premise: Put a webcam in a courtroom, and, boom, livestreamed court proceedings. But of course it’s tricker than that; otherwise, the Knight Foundation may not have awarded $250,000 to the WBUR-led project.

“The truth of the matter is when we put this out there the concept is so simple,” John Davidow, OpenCourt’s executive producer, told me. “We’re just going to stream live what takes place in public.”

A test run for transparency

The tasks OpenCourt is addressing are technical as much as they are legal, and sometimes conventional. The project operates within the boundaries of camera-use in the courts (video recording is permitted here in Massachusetts but can be limited by judges — though the current law may be broadened). But it still must confront concerns from the legal community, and ultimately try to balance the idea of transparency with the right to a fair trial.

But since there is no universal standard for new media access when it comes to the legal system in the US, OpenCourt is also a test case. Walking into any random courtroom, there’s no way of knowing whether tweeting is allowed, whether recording is an option, or even whether the use of a laptop is acceptable. That’s why Davidow says OpenCourt is an experiment, and one that will need to be watched closely if it’s to be duplicated elsewhere.

“It’s a pilot,” Davidow told me. “It’s now a reality and off the white board. More and more issues will come forward.”

And already something has come forward. On its first day of operation, the Norfolk County District Attorney’s office filed a a motion to close access to OpenCourt’s archives. An attorney from the DA’s office said the archives would present a lasting, un-editable record if inappropriate or inaccurate information — the names of crime victims, say, or of confidential informants — were to come out in a hearing. Judge Mark Coven denied the motion, saying “respectfully, I can’t address hypotheticals.”

Defining an open system

The true hurdles for OpenCourt, as Davidow described them, come in defining the parameters of how, what, and when the video feed would be active. He and his staffJoe Spurr, OpenCourt’s director, and Val Wang, its producer — decided the video stream would be live only when a judge is presiding over a case and when an OpenCourt producer is present. (In other words, this won’t be the equivalent of a traffic cam staring at the bench.) Davidow said they decided that the judge (who has a laptop monitoring the feed) will have discretion over whether the video is online or not. And that will largely depend on the case, Davidow said. (Though, after consulting with their advisory group of lawyers, judges, academics, and others, the team decided not to broadcast restraining order hearings as a rule.) The team had to be mindful, Davidow noted, of how being transparent could cause additional harm to people or prevent them from appearing in court at all.

But rather than setting out more guidelines for limiting the use of live video, the OpenCourt team has tried to find ways to make the camera and what it represents less of an issue. Beginning late last year, they held a series of meetings with the community in and around the court to familiarize others with the project, the gear, and the people who would be filming hearings every day. The camera, and the producer who operates it, have their own pocket in the courtroom and have become something of a fixture. (On the stream, you might notice, not many folks look towards the camera.)

“When you put a TV camera some place, people eventually forget about it,” Davidow said. “There’s a comfort level with it; you get used to it. That has helped the project immensely.”

Watching OpenCourt is C-SPAN-esque — or maybe Court TV-esque (or is that now truTV-esque?) — minus the call-in shows and podium-thumping speeches from politicians. Defendants shuffle in and out, charges are explained, and things follow course from there. It’s an unfiltered eye into the legal process, like staring down at an engine as it’s working.

It’s also more than a little ironic: Courts are open, but are they open open? “Courts have enjoyed what they referred to as ‘virtual obscurity,’” Davidow said. “Yes, justice is done in public, but to see it you need to go to court.”

A judicial education

Watching the video feed also makes you appreciate the simplicity of the kit OpenCourt has put together to create such a seamless product. As the team explains on their “Open Your Court” page, a DIY run-through for filming your local legal system, they use a couple of MacBook Pros, a Canon HD camcorder, and Livestream to get things up and running. One of the project’s goals, said Spurr, is to offer other courts full guidance on using cameras in court — and that guidance includes technology details and other best practices. “It’s about iterability,” Spurr said, “and being able to create an ideal environment that is forward thinking: What could a courtroom look like?”

What OpenCourt is encouraging is more interaction with, if not more information about, the court system. Aside from the livestream, the project is also providing free WiFi at the courthouse for anyone who wants to come in to cover a case. In that, Davidow said, the project could be a boon to local bloggers and citizen journalists, giving them an additional resource for covering the community. It’s also clear that OpenCourt could be useful to understaffed newsrooms as a way of keeping track of cases as they move through the system. “I’d argue that nothing compares to actually being there and seeing with your own eyes,” he said. “At the same time, maybe some news organizations would find efficiency in that setup.” (The Quincy Patriot-Ledger has already embedded the OpenCourt stream in a story.)

While the goal is to throw open the doors of the court, it is also to educate the public about the court’s workings. Though one of the benefits of operating in a district court is that it’s the most accessible step in the judiciary (traffic/moving violations, fines, the types of misdemeanors you don’t want others to know about — all go through district court), there’s still an element of the unknown about how courts work. This is why, in addition to the stream on opencourt.us, you’ll also find a schedule of the day’s cases, a glossary of legal terms, and a rundown of the people who make the court work.

“One of the reasons the courts really embraced this idea is because people don’t understand some basic concepts,” Davidow said. “The courts felt this was a way for people to start learning about how justice is done in this country.”

November 17 2010

14:47

Order In The Court 2.0 Adds Staff, Plans Live-Streams from Court

In the last few weeks Order in the Court 2.0 has made enormous strides in moving forward with our project. Most importantly we've brought on board two very talented individuals who are responsible for the day-to-day operation of this project. Below is the note that I put out to the staff of WBUR, which is the home-base of this Knight News Challenge initiative.

New Staff

Joe Spurr and Val Wang are joining WBUR to work on our new online initiative, Order in the Court 2.0. Order in the Court 2.0 is a Knight News Challenge funded initiative that will explore the impact of digital technology on our nation's courts using Quincy District Court as a pilot courtroom.

Joe is the project's director and will be responsible for the design and development of the Order in the Court 2.0 website. He will also lead the development of the project's live-streaming capacity and work with the state court's chief technology office to build a system that serves the public, but also guarantees the rights of individuals who go before the court.

Joe joins us from KPBS where he was the station's lead web developer for the recently redesigned KPBS.org website. Prior to that he was the site's content producer where he pioneered the adoption of using Twitter and Google Maps in breaking news situations during the 2007 California wildfires. Joe is a Boston native, a graduate of Northeastern University and a former freelance reporter at the Boston Globe.

Val Wang is Order in the Court 2.0's producer and will oversee the production of the daily stream of written and video content originating out of Quincy District Court. She will also lead the project's social media outreach and be responsible for engaging the public with this initiative. Many of you may have already met Val while she has been here freelance producing for Here and Now and On Point. Val is an experienced multimedia producer who has worked for Reuters Television and NBC News. Most recently she was the multimedia producer for the UNICEF website where she won a prestigious Webby award for her work. Val has a master's degree in non-fiction writing from Johns Hopkins University and earned her undergraduate degree at Williams College.

Joe and Val will spend the next couple of months working at the station as the project takes shape. Starting early next year the project will be based out of Quincy District Court.

Their Roles

I also asked Joe and Val to describe a bit of how they see their respective roles in making this a successful project.

Here's Joe's:

As director of Order in the Court 2.0, much of my energy at the outset will focus on technology, so the stage can be set when we've got enough agreed-upon policy in place to make some baby steps in public. For now this means collaborating to wire-up the courtroom in Quincy to support a quality video stream, and helping design a site and set up its back-end in a way that best serves our anticipated primary content. With so many moving pieces ahead of us, we're whiteboarding a lot and keeping in touch as best we can with court officials and lawyers who have a vested interest in our success.

Once we're up and running, I imagine I'll be spending more time helping produce content, and hopefully vetting ideas to expand upon the site's basic public service as a window into the local justice system. My greater hope is that we pave the way a bit and create a blueprint of sorts for how to modernize a courtroom for public good: technology-wise and policy-wise. In tandem with that, to help us understand what's happening beyond the day-to-day, I think there's enormous potential value in mindfully archiving court proceedings and creating usable web applications to illuminate that data.

It's a fascinating time and I'm thrilled to be a part of an honest effort to help democracy evolve.

And here's Val's:

As the producer of Order in the Court 2.0, I'll be in Quincy District Court every day experimenting with how the latest technologies can be used to cover cases -- I'll be blogging and micro-blogging about cases, and video-streaming court proceedings, for starters. I'm excited to get a front row seat to the workings of the U.S. judicial system and to use these technologies to recreate the experience for the public. I like thinking about our project like a laboratory and will remain open and curious about what works and doesn't work about our coverage as we begin to craft guidelines that other courts can use in the future. This open-endedness is key to Order in the Court 2.0 and my hope is that the project will come alive with conversations among judges, lawyers on both sides, defendants, citizen journalists, local residents, and anyone interested in the workings of the U.S. legal system in the 21st century.

Right now we're spending a lot of our time on project management, establishing goals for the project and setting up a BaseCamp to coordinate our efforts.

We'd love to get feedback from all of you. What would you like to see come out of this project and how could we help you better understand what is going in the courts in your community?

September 29 2010

08:10

Time to talk about legal

As a lone blogger how much legal protection do you have? No more than anyone else, when it comes to libel, contempt of court law and so on, except that people are more likely to pay attention to large media organisations.

But there are many instances where bloggers have lost a lot of time and money over legal disputes. Last week, for example, journalist and blogger Dave Osler finally saw an end to a legal battle that consumed three years of his life, after he was sued for libel by the political activist Johanna Kaschke. Despite being refused the right to appeal the strike-out of the Osler case, she is still planning to appeal another High Court decision that ended her libel claim against Alex Hilton and John Gray.

If all individual bloggers worried about getting into trouble too much, we’d write much less than we do. Even big scary cases aren’t a deterrent: Dave Osler is still blogging. I was personally surprised by the results of my survey of 71 small online publishers this summer. Not that only 27 per cent had been involved in legal disputes (that was about what I expected) but that over half were satisfied with the number of legal resources available.

Personally, the grey areas of law trouble me and I don’t think there could be enough support: I’d like to see more organised structures for legal help, a sort of Citizens Advice Bureau for bloggers, if you like. Informal advice is already spreading via social networks, as lawyers increasingly use Twitter and blogs to join the conversation.

As I reported on my site Meeja Law, one hyperlocal blogger who was accused of breach of copyright asked for legal advice via Twitter: “Two separate media lawyers confirmed (for free) that I’d done nothing wrong. I also contacted [hyperlocal organisation] Talk About Local for advice, and they told me the same.”

Talk About Local has published several media law guides online (eg. this one on defamation) and the organisation’s founder William Perrin offers some frank legal advice ahead of a legal session at last weekend’s London Local Neighbourhoods Online Unconference:

…just about the best legal advice, which very few follow is to set up a 
limited company and keep the website inside that. Then you don’t lose 
your house to a nutter under defamation law….

Another concern of mine is the lack of transparency of courts data, something I’ve discussed at length here. I think bloggers should be able to access more information about cases; at the very least, the Ministry of Justice needs to consider its outmoded contempt of court law that is ill-equipped to deal with the online age.

In the coming months, I’d like to build up the conversation in this area and think about how we might approach some of these issues. If you’d like to be part of this informal online ‘working group’ please consider joining the Help Me Investigate challenge at this link (request membership here), or discussing via the OJB Facebook group.

Judith Townend (@jtownend on Twitter) is a PhD research student at City University London and freelance journalist.

September 28 2010

17:46

How is Privacy Protected with Transparency Coming to Courts?

Going into last week's meeting at Quincy District Court, Joan Kenney, the state court's chief public information officer and I had a quick phone meeting on what we were going to talk about at an upcoming meeting with Judge Andre A. Gelinas. Judge Gelinas, a retired justice who sat on the Massachusetts Appeals Court, now serves as the Special Advisor to the Chief Justice for Administration & Management for Information Technology.

In short, Judge Gelinas was going to be a legal referee for Order in the Court 2.0 who will help us determine what the project could or should be able to do in court. Another attendee due at the meeting was Judge Mark Coven, the Chief Judge at Quincy Court who has been an eager supporter and advocate for this project.

Joan and I decided that we'd keep the agenda short and simple. We wanted to get the judge's advice on these three issues:

  1. How should we post online the daily docket of court hearings each day?
  2. What concerns might Judge Gelinas have on live blogging from the courtroom?
  3. What concerns would he have about live video streaming from the courtroom?

Legal Issues Arise

The meeting took place the following day. It only lasted 45 minutes, but as you can see below the discussion was wide-ranging and covered many complex legal issues. Again and again, our conversation came back to the central issue of Order in the Court 2.0: How do you balance the public's right to know and the public's right to a fair trial? Here are some of the topics we touched upon during our meeting with the judges.

  • Domestic violence cases involving individuals who are in this country without legal documentation. Would photographing these individuals or posting their names online prevent victims from coming forward?
  • What would the rules be regarding open court discussions of the mental health issues of defendants? Would this be a violation of the state's Criminal Offender Record Information statute(CORI), which protects the rights of privacy of individuals charge or convicted of crimes?
  • Criminal records are constantly read in open court, especially during bail proceedings. Would the recording and posting of these criminal records online violate the CORI?
  • In addition to live streaming of courtroom proceedings, would Order in the Court 2.0 be archiving its content? If so, would the project become an official "keeper of the records" and have to follow state statutes that oversee such records?
  • What about the court's "virtual right of privacy"? This is the concept that the information the courts holds isn't immediately accessible to the public. For example, if an individual wants to see the file associated with a particular case, that person has to go to the court where the case is being heard and physically obtain the file from the court clerk. In the court's opinion, this barrier to immediate access protects the information in those files from companies like data miners who could use that information for profit. If Order in the Court 2.0 is posting everything it records online, would this be in violation of the virtual right of privacy? And just as importantly, should this virtual right of privacy be preserved?
  • What about cases where a defendant claims mistaken identity? Would posting their pictures online compromise their ability to get a fair trial?

Ground Rules

At our meeting both judges made it clear that our project would have to establish some legal ground rules on how we approach these issues. Judge Coven, who is a strong believer that anything in open court should be fair game, wants to make sure that cases heard at Quincy District Court would not be compromised by our project. He and Judge Gelinas felt that we would need to do some fairly significant legal research to explore the issues that came up during our discussion.

In our current configuration, no one working on this project will have any formal legal training. Due to that fact, the rest of the meeting was spent doing some serious brainstorming on how we would get started working on the legal guidelines that clearly are required for this project to go forward. It was determined that we would all reach out to our contacts within the Greater Boston legal academic community for some answers to the issues that had been raised.

The meeting made it clear that the work of Order in the Court 2.0 will be a useful resource for other projects that want to provide greater access to our nation's courts. Though it was a short meeting, it clearly demonstrated the important work we have ahead of us.

September 08 2010

15:26

A Groundbreaking Survey of New Media and The Courts

Late last month the Conference of Court Public Information Officers released the results of a nearly year-long study entitled, New Media and the Courts - The Current Status and a Look at the Future. I have anxiously been awaiting this report. I believe it will play a major role as we outline the activity of Order in the Court 2.0.

I first became aware of this study as I prepared my Knight News Challenge proposal. During the submission process, I consulted quite frequently with one of the co-authors of the CCPIO report, Chris Davey. Davey and I agreed that if I was fortunate enough to get funding we would test some of the ideas that surfaced in the CCPIO report.

The Survey

More than 16,000 individuals in the court community were invited to participate in the electronic survey. Of the 810 individuals who completed the full survey, 254 (or 31.3 percent) were judges or magistrates. The majority of the respondents were court system staff. Partners in the project include the National Center for State Courts, the nation's leading center for research assistance to the nation's state court systems, and the E.W. Scripps School of Journalism at Ohio University.

Though the response to the survey was somewhat limited, there are some compelling topics outlined in CCPIO's final report. For those of you who don't want to take the time to read the 100-plus pages of text, I've boiled down some of the highlights in the text below.

Major Objectives

From the report:

The CCPIO New Media Project had five primary objectives: (1) clearly define the current technology, (2) systematically examine the ways courts use the technology, (3) empirically measure the perceptions of judges and top court administrators toward the technology, (4) collect and analyze the literature on public perceptions of the judiciary and court public outreach programs and (5) offer a framework and analysis for judges and court administrators to use for making decisions about the appropriate use of new media.

Court Culture vs. New Media Culture

The study succinctly described the culture clash between the courts and new media realities:

  • New media are decentralized and multidirectional, while the courts are institutional and largely unidirectional.
  • New media are personal and intimate, while the courts are separate, even cloistered, and, by definition, independent.
  • New media are multimedia, incorporating video and still images, audio and text, while the courts are highly textual.

Checklist on Using Social Media in the Courtroom

Probably the most important part of the report for us at Order in the Court 2.0 is found in Appendix B. There you'll find a valuable checklist that we plan to incorporate into our project. I've edited the checklist, but have tried to retain its essence. Here's the edited checklist:

  • What do you want to achieve? Public Education? Release of decisions? Highlight the activities of individual judges or courts? Explain court processes and procedures? Develop ongoing dialogues with the public to increase transparency?
  • How will you know if the resources you are dedicating to social media technologies are a good investment of time and money?
  • Do you have an efficient mechanism to monitor these technologies on a regular basis to ensure quality control?
  • Does your organization have a policy on how to handle defamatory or inappropriate remarks posted to social media sites outside the department?
  • What kind of involvement should the court's information technology division have in the decision to use social media technologies.
  • What are the technical requirements of introducing social media technology?
  • Are there criteria in place as to what topics can and cannot be discussed?
  • What safeguards are in place to ensure nothing is posted that jeopardizes a case or trial?
  • Do you have a prepared plan of action in place in the event a spectator is inappropriately using new media technology in your courtroom?

You can see we have a lot of work ahead of us.

September 01 2010

18:12

The Challenges of Life and Transparency at Quincy District Court

Now that the celebrations and congratulations are in the past, the hard work of building Order in the Court 2.0 has begun.

The idea that received the endorsement of the Knight News Challenge is now being tested in the real world with formal meetings with officials from the Massachusetts court system. I'm happy to report that we have so far received overwhelming support and encouragement for this project.

Our first meeting took place at the Quincy District Court where we met with Judge Mark Coven, the first justice of the court, the clerk of the court, the state court's public information officer, the state court's chief information officer and the state's director of court operations.

Touring the Courthouse With Judge Coven

Judge Coven set the tone of this meeting with his welcoming remarks and reinforced his enthusiasm for this project. He stressed its importance and how it was critical for the courts to have greater accessibility in order to build confidence in the judicial branch. He also made it clear that he wanted his courthouse to serve as a national model in determining the best practices for providing digital access to the public. After introductions, the judge provided us with a tour of the court.

After taking a few steps into the courthouse's lobby, the judge was approached by a young man who didn't look a day over 14 years old. He came to court that day to specifically thank the judge for his help in getting clean of drugs. It turns out the young man was in his late teens and had been in and out of court so many times that the judge knew him very well. He recently graduated from a drug treatment program the judge had sentenced him to in order to deal with a heroin addiction. It was easy to see the judge was touched by this man's special visit. Judge Coven took a father-like pride in the fact that he had offered this man a second chance.

Our tour continued through the busy courthouse with trips to the lock-up downstairs and meetings with court officers. I then spent the rest of the morning with the assistant court clerk who will be the day-to-day facilitator of this project. He too could not have been more enthusiastic. It was humbling to see that an idea that came out of the Knight News Challenge process was going to come to fruition and was going to have tangible support.

Transparency: Rewards and Risks

Since that initial meeting at the courthouse there have been meetings with the chief information officer of the state courts, Craig Burlingame. Burlingame is one of the most highly respected people in his field. He had just returned from Australia where he was helping the national government improve its computer records processes. Burlingame is incredibly knowledgeable about the particular challenges of getting the court's data out to the public. He is aware of the rewards of transparency, but he is also helping me understand the risks.

Here's an example. One goal of Order in the Court 2.0 is to post the daily docket at Quincy District Court. The docket lists the names of each defendant and cases that are scheduled for the day. The docket is produced by the state's computer system, which is called MassCourts. The docket is sent to each court in a searchable PDF document. If Order in the Court 2.0 were to post the docket through its website (which is not yet under construction), data mining agencies would have easy access to the information it contains. This, understandably, is an issue for the court.

Burlingame explained that it could seriously impact victims of crimes coming forward if they thought it might affect future job prospects or housing, since landlords use these services. He acknowledged that the docket is a public document posted at the courthouse; but to ensure the public's safety he needs to come up with a way to provide the document in a non-searchable PDF, and to seek the input of the judge assigned to preserve the integrity of the court's digital records.

It was striking to hear how something that initially seemed simple could be so complicated and require further judicial review. It was a perfect example of how the lessons we learn from this project will make it easier for future efforts to build greater court transparency.

One final footnote to this post. During a phone call with Judge Coven to set up another meeting, he reminded me of our conversation in the lobby with the young man who had come to thank him. He told me that the man was back in custody, and his family had come forward to request that he be recommitted because he was back on heroin. You couldn't miss the sadness in the judge's voice.

18:12

The Challenges of Life and Transparency at Quincy District Court

Now that the celebrations and congratulations are in the past, the hard work of building Order in the Court 2.0 has begun.

The idea that received the endorsement of the Knight News Challenge is now being tested in the real world with formal meetings with officials from the Massachusetts court system. I'm happy to report that we have so far received overwhelming support and encouragement for this project.

Our first meeting took place at the Quincy District Court where we met with Judge Mark Coven, the first justice of the court, the clerk of the court, the state court's public information officer, the state court's chief information officer and the state's director of court operations.

Touring the Courthouse With Judge Coven

Judge Coven set the tone of this meeting with his welcoming remarks and reinforced his enthusiasm for this project. He stressed its importance and how it was critical for the courts to have greater accessibility in order to build confidence in the judicial branch. He also made it clear that he wanted his courthouse to serve as a national model in determining the best practices for providing digital access to the public. After introductions, the judge provided us with a tour of the court.

After taking a few steps into the courthouse's lobby, the judge was approached by a young man who didn't look a day over 14 years old. He came to court that day to specifically thank the judge for his help in getting clean of drugs. It turns out the young man was in his late teens and had been in and out of court so many times that the judge knew him very well. He recently graduated from a drug treatment program the judge had sentenced him to in order to deal with a heroin addiction. It was easy to see the judge was touched by this man's special visit. Judge Coven took a father-like pride in the fact that he had offered this man a second chance.

Our tour continued through the busy courthouse with trips to the lock-up downstairs and meetings with court officers. I then spent the rest of the morning with the assistant court clerk who will be the day-to-day facilitator of this project. He too could not have been more enthusiastic. It was humbling to see that an idea that came out of the Knight News Challenge process was going to come to fruition and was going to have tangible support.

Transparency: Rewards and Risks

Since that initial meeting at the courthouse there have been meetings with the chief information officer of the state courts, Craig Burlingame. Burlingame is one of the most highly respected people in his field. He had just returned from Australia where he was helping the national government improve its computer records processes. Burlingame is incredibly knowledgeable about the particular challenges of getting the court's data out to the public. He is aware of the rewards of transparency, but he is also helping me understand the risks.

Here's an example. One goal of Order in the Court 2.0 is to post the daily docket at Quincy District Court. The docket lists the names of each defendant and cases that are scheduled for the day. The docket is produced by the state's computer system, which is called MassCourts. The docket is sent to each court in a searchable PDF document. If Order in the Court 2.0 were to post the docket through its website (which is not yet under construction), data mining agencies would have easy access to the information it contains. This, understandably, is an issue for the court.

Burlingame explained that it could seriously impact victims of crimes coming forward if they thought it might affect future job prospects or housing, since landlords use these services. He acknowledged that the docket is a public document posted at the courthouse; but to ensure the public's safety he needs to come up with a way to provide the document in a non-searchable PDF, and to seek the input of the judge assigned to preserve the integrity of the court's digital records.

It was striking to hear how something that initially seemed simple could be so complicated and require further judicial review. It was a perfect example of how the lessons we learn from this project will make it easier for future efforts to build greater court transparency.

One final footnote to this post. During a phone call with Judge Coven to set up another meeting, he reminded me of our conversation in the lobby with the young man who had come to thank him. He told me that the man was back in custody, and his family had come forward to request that he be recommitted because he was back on heroin. You couldn't miss the sadness in the judge's voice.

August 13 2010

15:01

Order in the Court 2.0: Making the Justice System More Public

The idea behind Order in the Court 2.0, one of this year's winners of a Knight News Challenge grant, is to restore and reinvigorate the public's access and understanding of our nation's courts.

Up to now journalism has been the primary bridge connecting the public to the courts. But the media's ability to cover the courts is diminished due to shrinking resources.

At the same time, many in the public are equipped with new media tools like smartphones, Wi-Fi and access to multiple social networks.

Working with the judiciary and the public, Order in the Court 2.0 will establish best practices for effective and efficient ways to cover the courts using digital technology.

Live Streaming, Place for Bloggers, Wiki

We are the first nationally funded initiative to change how courts deal with electronic journalism since video and audio recording standards were established in the 1970's. While the legislative and the executive branch have embraced new technologies developed in the last decade, the judicial branch has been the slowest to adapt to these innovations.

Order in the Court 2.0 will create a pilot program in Quincy District Court, located just outside Boston, to serve as a laboratory to test these new media initiatives. Quincy District Court is one of the busiest courthouses in the Massachusetts with nearly 9,000 new criminal complaints filed each year.

This pilot program will equip the courthouse with live video-streaming capabilities and create designated areas for live bloggers. Additionally, we will post online the court's daily docket to better inform and engage the public of what civil and criminal cases are being heard in the area. We also plan to build a knowledge wiki that will educate the public of common legal terms and proceedings, all in an effort to add transparency to this fundamental aspect of our democratic society.

By the end of this project, the more skeptical members of the legal community -- including judges, court administrators and lawyers -- should accept, if not embrace, the advantages of increased digital access to the nation's court system. To quote Judge Mark Coven, First Justice of the Quincy District court in Massachusetts, "We have long believed that if the public had greater information about what transpires in the court that there would be increased public confidence in the work of our judicial system."

Additionally, we hoped that the effective demonstration of the success of Order in the Court 2.0 will be a model that can be emulated through the nation's courts at all jurisdictional levels.

Leadership and Partners

I will be leading a small team of digital journalists working out of Quincy District Court. My day job is executive director of wbur.org, the website of Boston NPR's website. Over the past year I've overseen our station's efforts to become a major news destination site. I'm responsible for the editorial content of our website, which includes content from our local newsroom, Radio Boston, and our nationally syndicated programs, On Point, Here and Now, and Only a Game. Prior to going over to the digital side, I was WBUR's news director for the last six years. I've also got two decades worth of local television news experience working at Boston's ABC and CBS affiliates.

The idea behind Order in the Court 2.0 came out of work being done by the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court Judiciary-Media Committee, of which I am a member. This committee is made up of members of the state and federal judiciary and media representatives from print, radio, television and online. This committee is trying to adapt the current cameras in the court rules to incorporate the new realities of digital access. Order in the Court 2.0 will provide real world opportunities to test out some of these proposed rule changes.

We also plan to work cooperatively with the National Conference of Court Public Information Officers. This past year the new media committee of the CCPIO has been studying the issue raised by increased digital access. It will soon release its findings. After studying the state of new media and gauging the perceptions of judges and court administrators, the CCPIO will issue a framework for the courts on how to make decisions appropriate for the use of new media. Order in the Court 2.0 adds the input of mainstream media, citizen journalists and the public at large to this equation and then tests these assumptions in real time in one of the busiest courts in the state

Challenges

One of the greatest challenges Order in the Court 2.0 will face is the fear and apprehension of the judges and court staff, who are concerned that greater access and transparency of the legal process could have a detrimental effect on the administration of justice. To address this concern, Order in the Court 2.0 will include judges and other court personnel in its development and implementation.

Order in the Court 2.0 will have to strike the appropriate balance between the public's right to know and the public's right to due process. These two rights play themselves out everyday in court and the introduction of smaller, and more accessible digital communication devices only complicate issues that the courts need to address going into the future.

Order in the Court Needs You

Even though we haven't officially started at Quincy District Court, this project is getting lots of attention thanks to coverage in the Boston Globe, Neiman Journalism Lab, Current
and even across the pond at journalism.co,uk.

But, most importantly, we'd love to know what you think of our idea. What does it need to accomplish to be a success in your mind? Let us know what you think by adding a comment below. We'd love to have you along for the ride as we attempt to bring about Order in the Court 2.0.

15:01

Order in the Court 2.0: Making the Justice System More Public

The idea behind Order in the Court 2.0, one of this year's winners of a Knight News Challenge grant, is to restore and reinvigorate the public's access and understanding of our nation's courts.

Up to now journalism has been the primary bridge connecting the public to the courts. But the media's ability to cover the courts is diminished due to shrinking resources.

At the same time, many in the public are equipped with new media tools like smartphones, Wi-Fi and access to multiple social networks.

Working with the judiciary and the public, Order in the Court 2.0 will establish best practices for effective and efficient ways to cover the courts using digital technology.

Live Streaming, Place for Bloggers, Wiki

We are the first nationally funded initiative to change how courts deal with electronic journalism since video and audio recording standards were established in the 1970's. While the legislative and the executive branch have embraced new technologies developed in the last decade, the judicial branch has been the slowest to adapt to these innovations.

Order in the Court 2.0 will create a pilot program in Quincy District Court, located just outside Boston, to serve as a laboratory to test these new media initiatives. Quincy District Court is one of the busiest courthouses in the Massachusetts with nearly 9,000 new criminal complaints filed each year.

This pilot program will equip the courthouse with live video-streaming capabilities and create designated areas for live bloggers. Additionally, we will post online the court's daily docket to better inform and engage the public of what civil and criminal cases are being heard in the area. We also plan to build a knowledge wiki that will educate the public of common legal terms and proceedings, all in an effort to add transparency to this fundamental aspect of our democratic society.

By the end of this project, the more skeptical members of the legal community -- including judges, court administrators and lawyers -- should accept, if not embrace, the advantages of increased digital access to the nation's court system. To quote Judge Mark Coven, First Justice of the Quincy District court in Massachusetts, "We have long believed that if the public had greater information about what transpires in the court that there would be increased public confidence in the work of our judicial system."

Additionally, we hoped that the effective demonstration of the success of Order in the Court 2.0 will be a model that can be emulated through the nation's courts at all jurisdictional levels.

Leadership and Partners

I will be leading a small team of digital journalists working out of Quincy District Court. My day job is executive director of wbur.org, the website of Boston NPR's website. Over the past year I've overseen our station's efforts to become a major news destination site. I'm responsible for the editorial content of our website, which includes content from our local newsroom, Radio Boston, and our nationally syndicated programs, On Point, Here and Now, and Only a Game. Prior to going over to the digital side, I was WBUR's news director for the last six years. I've also got two decades worth of local television news experience working at Boston's ABC and CBS affiliates.

The idea behind Order in the Court 2.0 came out of work being done by the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court Judiciary-Media Committee, of which I am a member. This committee is made up of members of the state and federal judiciary and media representatives from print, radio, television and online. This committee is trying to adapt the current cameras in the court rules to incorporate the new realities of digital access. Order in the Court 2.0 will provide real world opportunities to test out some of these proposed rule changes.

We also plan to work cooperatively with the National Conference of Court Public Information Officers. This past year the new media committee of the CCPIO has been studying the issue raised by increased digital access. It will soon release its findings. After studying the state of new media and gauging the perceptions of judges and court administrators, the CCPIO will issue a framework for the courts on how to make decisions appropriate for the use of new media. Order in the Court 2.0 adds the input of mainstream media, citizen journalists and the public at large to this equation and then tests these assumptions in real time in one of the busiest courts in the state

Challenges

One of the greatest challenges Order in the Court 2.0 will face is the fear and apprehension of the judges and court staff, who are concerned that greater access and transparency of the legal process could have a detrimental effect on the administration of justice. To address this concern, Order in the Court 2.0 will include judges and other court personnel in its development and implementation.

Order in the Court 2.0 will have to strike the appropriate balance between the public's right to know and the public's right to due process. These two rights play themselves out everyday in court and the introduction of smaller, and more accessible digital communication devices only complicate issues that the courts need to address going into the future.

Order in the Court Needs You

Even though we haven't officially started at Quincy District Court, this project is getting lots of attention thanks to coverage in the Boston Globe, Neiman Journalism Lab, Current
and even across the pond at journalism.co,uk.

But, most importantly, we'd love to know what you think of our idea. What does it need to accomplish to be a success in your mind? Let us know what you think by adding a comment below. We'd love to have you along for the ride as we attempt to bring about Order in the Court 2.0.

July 28 2010

11:31

Let us record what happens in our courts – comment call

Heather Brooke is calling for a campaign to allow recording in UK courts. I agree. In the comments below, let’s talk strategy.

Meanwhile, here’s some of the background from Brooke’s related blog post:

How:

“The simple answer is to allow tape recorders for all: no party is disadvantaged and an ‘official’ recording is there for checking. This is how it works in other countries. But this is to ignore the root objection of the courts: that they are losing control of how court proceedings are presented to the public.”

Why:

“You might like to know whether the builder you’re going to give your keys to has any convictions for theft or if the company you’re about to do business with has a report for fraud. Tough. This information is not a click of a button away. Instead you’ll have to know the details of the case before you can call up any records – even though it’s the existence of cases that you’re trying to find in the first place. It’s Catch-22. If you do know the details of the case you’re then forced to undergo a tortuous and tedious process which involves battling a raft of petty officials across a number of court offices all for the simple purpose of accessing information that is supposedly public.”

And what:

“There are three main things that would make the courts useful to the general public:

  1. knowing by name who is using them (the court list);
  2. why (the particulars of claim);
  3. the result (the verdict, sentence or settlement).

“Yet trying to get any, let alone all, of these is fraught with difficulty.”

So: strategy. To kick things off, I’ll give you 3 starters:

Come up with some better ideas than that, and we’re somewhere.

Meanwhile, to spread awareness of this, why not tweet about this with the hashtag #opencourts?

June 16 2010

19:00

Knight News Challenge: Order in the Court 2.0 wants to welcome the judiciary branch to the digital age

The debate over cameras in the Supreme Court is longstanding these days — but what about technology in courtrooms all over the country? One Knight News Challenge winner this year, Order in the Court 2.0, wants to bring new media to the judiciary.

I spoke with the man behind the idea, John Davidow, executive editor in charge of WBUR.org, the remarkable website for one of Boston’s public radio stations. Davidow said that the idea is to get the third branch of government to travel the same path to digital transparency that the legislative and executive branches have begun to do. Davidow said the court system has, by and large, continued to operate under the same video and audio recording standards it adopted in the 1970s and 1980s.

“The courts have sort of gone further and further way from the public and public access. In the old days, they were built in the center of town,” he told me. “The community was able to walk into the courts and see what was going on. Modern life has done away with that. The bridge that was going in between the courts and the public was the media. The media has just less resources.”

Davidow’s idea, which Knight awarded $250,000, is to use one courthouse as a laboratory, out of which will come a set of best practices and case studies for courtrooms across the country to reference. The test kitchen is the Quincy District Court here in Massachusetts, a courthouse Davidow described as ideal: Its chief judge is open to the idea, and the courthouse has a tradition of dabbling in new technologies. It’s also one of the busiest courthouses in the state, so it should also serve as a good model for even large courthouses.

I asked Davidow about how his idea differs from existing efforts to use new media in courthouses across the county. He explained that the problem is consistency: Decisions about new media decisions are made on a case-by-case basis, not systematically. Some judges make decisions based on space, others on whether a particular technology will disturb the court. The outcome is mixed: Yes, bloggers, you may cover the Scooter Libby trial, but, no Rod Blagojevich, you may not tweet during your trial. Davidow is also concerned about how many courthouses do not use new media themselves, not even making the daily docket available online.

Davidow hopes that a set of standards could help make new media and technologies that foster transparency and openness become just another normal part of the courthouse. One of the most interesting ways he thinks he’ll be able to achieve systematic success is through a broad network of stakeholders, already pieced together. “When I started formulating this, I made an awful lot of calls,” he told me. “I was fortunate enough to to find a conference of chief court information officers. They’re working on this same exact issue. They’re all trying to figure it out nationally.” The Conference of Court Public Information Officers has agreed to release a report at the end of the project, providing a framework for courts to handle new media questions. The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court Judiciary-Media Committee, composed of both journalists and judges, voted unanimously to support this project. Boston University’s School of Communication has volunteered to train “civic journalists” and court personnel. Our friends at Harvard’s Citizen Media Law Project, just down the street from the Lab, have also agreed to help.

Courts move slowly, and Davidow is prepared to face that challenge: “The term deliberation means something,” he joked. But with his test kitchen going, and many stakeholders supporting his effort, he hopes to get courthouses moving in a new media direction.

February 25 2010

21:49
08:00
07:54

December 10 2009

23:47

Guide to Live-Blogging and Tweeting from Court

As part of the Citizen Media Law Project's legal guide series on documenting public proceedings and events, today we published a guide to Live-Blogging and Tweeting from Court.  Over the past year, we've published guides addressing how to stay out of legal trouble while documenting activities at polling places and covering the Presidential Inauguration, as well as a series of videos on newsgathering and privacy. Today's installment in the series looks at the impact of new media on one of our most tradition-bound institutions: the courts.

The question of who is a journalist - and by extension, what is journalism -- has come into sharp relief in the context of media coverage of public events, including access to and reporting at court proceedings, election events, conferences, sporting events, and breaking news.  A critical issue for coverage of these public events is, of course, access to the events in the first place.  But once you are in, what tools can you use to supplement your reporting?

As we've noted on our blog many times, the popularity of Twitter and live-blogging has introduced a new dimension into a journalist's coverage of court proceedings.  The use of these real-time communications technologies has been met with a mixture of both acceptance and criticism from judges and lawyers.  While some judges allow electronic devices in their courtrooms, many others don't.  In fact, some local rules prohibit the use of electronic devices anywhere within the courthouse!

To help folks navigate these issues, we've written a guide chock full of practical advice on how to avoid legal trouble if you intend to provide live coverage from inside a courthouse.  To supplement the guide, CMLP staff also conducted interviews with journalists and bloggers with experience live-blogging or tweeting from court and wrote up summaries detailing their successes and failures.  

You can find the new section on Live-Blogging and Tweeting from Court in our legal guide, along with general background on gaining access to courts and court records.

Older posts are this way If this message doesn't go away, click anywhere on the page to continue loading posts.
Could not load more posts
Maybe Soup is currently being updated? I'll try again automatically in a few seconds...
Just a second, loading more posts...
You've reached the end.

Don't be the product, buy the product!

Schweinderl