Orleans Parish Criminal District Court. (Michael Isaac Stein/The Lens)

Last Monday, the Orleans Parish Criminal District Court closed in response to the coronavirus outbreak, but some proceedings have continued to take place virtually. First appearances for recently arrested defendants, for instance,  are now conducted via Zoom video conference, with the defendant appearing while still in jail, and the lawyers and judge logging on from home. 

The new system has kept the dockets moving, but the court hasn’t yet granted access to the video feed to anyone not directly involved in the proceedings, effectively cutting off any public access or oversight. 

Last week, Court Watch NOLA, a watchdog group that uses a team of volunteers to monitor activity, usually in person, at the Criminal District Court, wrote a letter to the New Orleans Criminal District Court judge requesting “meaningful access” to the video feed of all court proceedings conducted by videoconference, claiming that it is a “constitutional and traditional right, especially during these critical times.” 

The U.S. Supreme Court has found that criminal proceedings should be open to the public. And the Louisiana state constitution guarantees that “all courts shall be open.” 

“Since last Tuesday March 17th, Court Watch NOLA has been asking for access to Zoom video court proceedings and since last Tuesday Court Watch NOLA has been told to wait and see,” the letter reads.

The Lens has also been denied multiple requests to access the video feed for first appearances. 

Court Watch said that they had been able to access some proceedings via speakerphone, but that they weren’t able to hear well enough to understand what was actually taking place. 

The Judicial Administrator, Rob Kazik, said in a statement that this was a “unique issue” for the court and that they are “working hard to implement a system that will allow public access to accommodate not only Court Watch NOLA but the entire public.” 

Kazik said they would update everyone as soon as they could, but did not specify the reason for the delay. 

Simone Levine, the Executive Director of Court Watch NOLA, said that she has been in touch with acting Chief Judge Robin Pittman about getting access. She said that Pittman presents the problem as a technical one. 

“She just keeps telling me over and over again that they’re trying to work it out with their information technology person, and that’s really the basis of what I get,” said Levine.

The Court Watch letter, however, suggests that there may be other concerns from judges about granting the group access to the video feed, such as the possibility that they might be disruptive, or record the proceedings. The group argues that those concerns are both unfounded and insufficient to deny them access.

“Speculative, hypothetical concerns that zoom proceedings could be videotaped do not outweigh the constitutional right to open proceedings,” the letter reads. “Further, Court Watch NOLA has monitored Criminal District Court for over twelve years. There has never been an occasion to our knowledge where a courtwatcher has caused any such distraction or videotaped a court proceeding. … Many of our courtwatchers are community courtwatchers who have been monitoring your courtrooms for years; some even have relationships with you from monitoring your courtroom for years.”

“We’re willing to take whatever precautions as long as we have the same public access that technology can really afford, and that we don’t have judges that are just trying to shield themselves from greater transparency,” Levine said.

“The ability of the public and the press to observe court proceedings is extremely important to basic government accountability,” said Katie Schwartzman, attorney at the ACLU of Louisiana, in a statement. “Local judicial districts must work quickly to make their proceedings available for public viewing online.” 

Scott Sternberg, a New Orleans attorney who specializes in government transparency, First Amendment, and media law said that the problem is a product of a chronically under-resourced court system that hasn’t been able to adapt to the changing conditions. But, he was ultimately optimistic that the courts would find a way to ensure public access.

“This is an unprecedented situation. Unfortunately, our courts and justice system are not funded at the level to prepare for this kind of pandemic, or any disaster like a hurricane,” he said. “I am confident that the courts, like so many public bodies, are going to use the technologies readily available to the public to ensure the safe, secure review of these matters as soon as possible.” 

Nicholas Chrastil

Nicholas Chrastil covers criminal justice for The Lens. As a freelancer, his work has appeared in Slate, Undark, Mother Jones, and the Atavist, among other outlets. Chrastil has a master's degree in mass...