So, if you’re involved in the legal profession, one thing was guaranteed to make it into your email inbox or social media feed or both. And, no, it wasn’t even the atrocious lawyering that was on display in the defense in Washington, D.C. of a former social media influencer. It was undoubtedly the 34 second video from a Zoom hearing of a lawyer who was stuck using a cat filter and didn’t know how to disable it.
I am extremely confident that you’ve seen the video. I probably watched it at least 5 times yesterday and laughed pretty raucously each time. Everything about it is pretty seriously funny. Except for one part. That’s the part that I think needs to be discussed seriously and, so far, hasn’t been.
Now I’m not going to weigh in on the “tech competence for lawyers and ethics” piece, others have already rapidly covered that ground. You can read three of the better quick pieces here, here, and here.
No, I want to focus on a slightly larger issue for lawyering and a much larger issue for the public at large.
While all the humor was occurring in the bottom right square of the video, the upper left square had text of warning. (Now, admittedly, the warning may have been disregarded in order for all of us to have seen the video, but it was still there and presumably appears ubiquitously in proceedings in that particular court.)
The language of warning read:
394th Judicial District Court
Recording of this hearing or live stream is prohibited.
Violation may constitute contempt of court and result in a fine of up to $500 and a jail term of up to 180 days.
Earlier in my career, along with normal litigation and legal ethics work, I represented a few media entities from time-to-time including work on access to courts issues so I can still remember many of the better quotations by heart, including this one:
What transpires in the courtroom is public property.
Now I remember the quote off the top of the dome, but have to look it up to be able to tell you the name of the U.S. Supreme Court case it comes from, which is Richmond Newspapers, Inc. v. Virginia, 448 U.S. 555 (1980) and, actually, is quoting an even older U.S. Supreme Court case, Craig v. Harney, 331 U.S. 367 (1947).
The pandemic has sown much chaos and disruption into our judicial system. This has been particularly difficult for people facing criminal charges as many have had to languish in prison for inability to take their case to trial in states where in-person judicial proceedings have continued to be prohibited because of the risk of transmission of the virus.
The ability to allow the business of the courts to continue through remote virtual proceedings has been a positive, but the cavalier nature in which courts are disregarding the issues associated with finding ways for the public to still have access to proceedings is not at all a positive for our system of justice.
While the restrictions on physical access to court proceedings where such in-person proceedings still take place can be justified on emergency grounds of being necessary for the protection of the actual, physical health of the public, presumptive restrictions on members of the public being able to monitor and watch judicial proceedings that are able to happen online are very unlikely to be justifiable as necessary at all. Such restrictions also are harmful to the health of our judicial system.
As another of the most important cases serving as the foundations of public access to judicial proceedings fleshes out, allowing for people to see and scrutinize trials and court proceedings “enhances the quality and safeguards the integrity of the fact finding process” and “fosters an appearance of fairness, thereby heightening public respect for the judicial process.” Globe Newspaper Co. v. Superior Court, 457 U.S. 596, 606 (1982).
The fact that our profession, 11 months into a pandemic, is being pretty blithe about the idea that the contents of public court hearings in February 2021 come with a broadcast threat that you could go to jail for recording them or sharing the contents of a live stream of them is not at all a good look for attorneys, judges, and the system.
The ethics rules in most jurisdictions (patterned after ABA Model Rule 6.4) make clear that lawyers are allowed to participate in judicial and legal reform efforts even if doing so might get you crosswise with the interests of clients you represent, I’d like to encourage lawyers out there to be more willing to do so to make certain that the increasing trend toward making what happens in court proceedings essentially private comes to an end.