WASHINGTON, D.C. – As the judicial branch’s policymaking body convenes here this week, the Coalition for Court Transparency is calling on judges who sit on the Judicial Conference to implement a uniform, same-day audio policy for hearings conducted in the 13 U.S. Courts of Appeals across the country.
While technology affords, and public interest dictates, that federal appeals courts should consider live-streaming audio of their proceedings, the coalition believes that a national same-day audio policy would at the very least ensure that reporters covering a federal court case could use primary source materials while a hearing was still newsworthy, no matter where in the circuit they physically work. While some federal benches maintain media-friendly policies, others compel reporters to file motions or pay a fee to receive audio files of cases.
“There is no reason for such disparate press policies across the federal court system, and we’re hopeful that in the interest of greater transparency, the Judicial Conference will look at making online, same-day audio a national standard,” said Mike Cavender, executive director of the Radio Television Digital News Association, a coalition member. “All members of the press should have equal access to court proceedings, whether they live near a federal courtroom or four states away – especially given what modern technology affords us.”
“Live-streaming argument audio at the appellate level is by far the easiest solution, both technologically and logistically, since all federal courts of appeal already record the audio for posterity,” said Bruce Brown, executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, a coalition member. “But in the interest of putting the 13 federal circuits on the same plane, implementing same-day audio is the most straightforward solution for the Judicial Conference to consider for the coming year.”
Today news directors of radio stations across the country joined with the coalition to send a letter to the Judicial Conference’s Committee on Court Administration, which oversees media policy in federal courts, asking them to implement a uniform, same-day audio policy. A copy of the letter is available at OpenSCOTUS.com.
A number of federal appeals courts have implemented press- and public-friendly audio policies in recent years. Last year, for example, Chief Judge Merrick Garland of the D.C. Circuit announced, to much praise, that his court would place audio files of its hearings online by 3:00 p.m. on the very day a case was argued. The Third Circuit (based in Philadelphia), Seventh (Chicago), Eighth (St. Louis) and the Federal Circuit (Washington, D.C.) also place same-day audio of arguments online, while the Ninth Circuit (San Francisco) not only uploads same-day audio to its website, but it also live-streams the proceedings.
The Ninth Circuit is also the only circuit to upload video of its hearings. The Third and D.C. Circuits film hearings in their main courtroom but only for distribution elsewhere in the building via closed-circuit TV.
Other federal courts of appeals with relatively fast turnaround on argument audio include the First (Boston) and Fifth Circuits (New Orleans), which place an audio file online with 24 hours of a hearing, and the Fourth Circuit (Richmond), which places argument audio online within two days.
Unfortunately, certain courts of appeals make it more difficult for the press to cover proceedings and for the public to follow the docket. In the Second Circuit (New York) argument audio is not made available to the press or the public online, though it is available for purchase. The Second Circuit did, on the other hand, allow C-SPAN to live-stream video of a Sept. 2 hearing on NSA surveillance. The Sixth Circuit (Cincinnati) often takes weeks to place argument audio online. In the Tenth Circuit (Denver) a member of the press or public must file a motion to receive oral argument audio. And in the Eleventh Circuit (Atlanta) a person must send a formal request to the clerk to receive the audio and then pay $30 to the court to get the file on CD.
The coalition applauds efforts from other media outlets that have been advocating for improved access in the federal courts they cover. The Cincinnati Enquirer, for example, requested that the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals live-stream audio of a marriage equality case before the panel last month. The clerk denied the request but did post the audio online 90 minutes after the conclusion of the hearing.
The coalition, which formed earlier this year to advocate for a more open and accountable U.S. Supreme Court, understands that, sometimes, for new media policies to implemented at the High Court, they must first be executed successfully in lower courts – another reason the coalition is eagerly awaiting the conclusion next summer of the cameras-in-the-court pilot program being conducted in 14 federal courtrooms across the country.
UPDATE: October 3, 2014
Read our letter to the new Judicial Conference Committee Chair