Criminal Justice
 

Judge in BP civil trial providing public with unusual access to web, records

More sunlight is peering into the federal court system in New Orleans, thanks to a veteran trial judge.

Judge Carl Barbier is allowing several innovations in the BP trial, which began today, that are making it easier for reporters to cover the case and for the public to follow.

Barbier lifted the court’s usual ban on reporters bringing laptops into the courtroom and media overflow room. Some reporters were Tweeting Monday from inside the courthouse.

Barbier is also allowing reporters to sign up for wireless Internet access inside the courtroom and obtain the so-called “real-time transcript” of the court reporter’s account of what is being said. Both services are usually available only to the lawyers in the case.

In yet another innovation, Barbier is posting court documents on the web that are typically not available to the public.

In sum, said Harry Rosenberg, a former U.S. Attorney who is a partner for Phelps Dunbar, “It’s become public-friendly.”

The Eastern District Court of Louisiana, where Barbier has been one of the trial judges since 1998, appears to be among the first to try to become more transparent. Rosenberg said judges in two other high-profile cases – one regarding the New Orleans Police Department consent decree, the other involving allegations of brutality at the Orleans Parish Prison – have also posted documents online that normally are available only to lawyers through the PACER subscription-only service, or to people who access computers available only at the courthouse.

As spelled out in his Jan. 18 order, Barbier authorized reporters to obtain access to the web and the real-time transcript through an Atlanta-based company called Computer Connect. The company, which was founded in 2001, has set up wireless capabilities in about 50 courtrooms across the country, managing director Sumit Chatterjee said.

“The New Orleans federal court from the beginning has displayed a sense of innovation in utilizing technology for court-related businesses,” Chatterjee said.

The real-time transcript does come with a caveat, however. The Barbier order requires reporters to sign an affidavit prohibiting them from using it as a definitive source since the real-time transcript is the court reporter’s unofficial version.

Whether this prohibition will keep reporters from quoting from the transcript rather than from their own handwritten notes from the trial is not clear.

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About Tyler Bridges

Tyler Bridges covers Louisiana politics and public policy for The Lens. He returned to New Orleans in 2012 after spending the previous year as a Nieman Fellow at Harvard, where he studied digital journalism. Prior to that, he spent 13 years as a reporter for the Miami Herald, where he was twice a member of Pulitzer Prize-winning teams while covering state government, the city of Miami and national politics. He also was a foreign correspondent based in South America. Before the Herald, he covered politics for seven years at The Times-Picayune. He is the author of The Rise of David Duke (1994) and Bad Bet on the Bayou: The Rise of Gambling in Louisiana and the Fall of Governor Edwin Edwards (2001). He can be reached at (504) 810-6222.