It is a fundamental principle of the United States legal system that courts should be open to the public. This principle is widely regarded as more aspirational than factual, because of numerous practical barriers to courtroom access -- not the least of which is that most of us do not have the time or ability to travel to the court to witness proceedings in person. While the news media report on judicial proceedings, their resources are limited; as a result, coverage is normally focused on specific cases of particular interest. Moreover, audiovisual recording of judicial activity is sporadic due to a complicated patchwork of largely discretionary rules about allowing cameras in the courtroom.
OpenCourt, an experimental project launched on May 2, 2011, by WBUR, Boston's NPR news station, seeks to change all of that. With the cooperation of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court (the highest court in the Commonwealth) and the Massachusetts District Court (a department of the Massachusetts Trial Court), the OpenCourt project has started streaming live video and audio of the proceedings in the First Session of Quincy District Court. OpenCourt also provides WiFi access to journalists and bloggers so that they can report live from the courtroom.
The goal of the OpenCourt project is to develop a set of standards and best practices for live access to the courts that can be replicated in courtrooms around the country. The project's launch coincides with the Supreme Judicial Court's consideration of extending of its own rule governing cameras in the courtroom to include bloggers and citizen journalists. OpenCourt has received substantial press coverage as aresult of its efforts to bring transparency and openness to thejudicial process through the use of technology.
OpenCourt selected the Quincy District Court, located just south of Boston, because of its reputation for innovation and its active and varied docket. The First Session handles arraignments, as well as pre-trial motion and hearing practice in both civil and criminal matters, but does not conduct jury trials. The audiovisual stream may be viewed on OpenCourt's website, OpenCourt.us; OpenCourt's journalists in the court are tweeting at @OpenCourtus.
There are certain limitations on the OpenCourt video. The stream is live only when a judge is presiding in the courtroom. Also, certain types of proceedings are not streamed for privacy or safety reasons, and the judge may turn off the camera upon motion or if he decides sua sponte that there is a substantial likelihood of harm to participants in a particular proceeding. Apart from these limitations, however, OpenCourt does not select particular cases for coverage and seeks to stream as much of the court's activity as possible.
The recordings of each day's events are archived, but with the exception of the first day of the project, the archives are not currently open to the public. OpenCourt has voluntarily delayed further public access to the archive in the wake of concerns about whether public access would interfere with the judicial process or pose a threat to the privacy or safety of courtroom participants.
We welcome your thoughts and comments on OpenCourt, the issue of making the OpenCourt archives open to the public, and cameras in the courtroom in general.
[Disclosure: CMLP's director, David Ardia, is on the Board of Advisors for OpenCourt.]