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House Bill Introduced to Protect Public Access to Court Proceedings Amid the Pandemic

Fix the Court is praising Rep. Mike Quigley of Illinois today for introducing a bill that would require remote arguments conducted by U.S. courts of appeals during the pandemic be livestreamed and that public access also be assured for any teleconferenced proceedings in federal trial courts.

This bill comes after the CARES Act permitted some criminal proceedings at the district court level – including detention and probation hearings, arraignments, misdemeanor pleas and sentencing – to occur via teleconference, though the rules for public access to those proceedings were not made explicit. This bill would require that video recordings of these virtual hearings to “be made available for public transmission in real time […] and be permanently archived.” 

Read the text of the bill here.

Also in the CARES Act, circuit courts received $6,000,000 but were not instructed how it should be used beyond “to prevent, prepare for, and respond to coronavirus.” This bill would require that any remote arguments conducted by circuit courts during the pandemic be livestreamed and archived, perhaps making use of some of the previous appropriations.

“Of course the public should have access to the remote proceedings our federal courts are holding during the pandemic,” FTC’s Gabe Roth said. “Some courts have recognized this imperative and are offering live broadcasts, but this timely legislation would go a step further and codify a uniform broadcast policy in the appeals courts and a uniform broadcast policy in the trial courts. I am appreciative of Rep. Quigley’s strong, continued support of increased access to the judiciary.”

Since mid-March, the Second, Fourth, Fifth, Seventh, Eighth, Ninth, Eleventh, Federal and D.C. Circuits have livestreamed remote arguments, though unless the bill passes, there’s no guarantee that those courts will continue to livestream, nor is there a guarantee that the holdouts would offer real-time access. The Third, Sixth and Tenth Circuits have either held remote arguments or plan to in the coming weeks, yet none of these proceedings have been or are schedule to be livestreamed.

Quigley’s bill comes as the Supreme Court is set to provide live audio of oral arguments starting the week of May 4.

Joining the U.S. Supreme Court, 27 state supreme courts so far have held remote hearings during the COVID-19 pandemic, all but three of which provided some form of real-time virtual access to the public. Ten additional states plan to hold virtual proceedings in the coming weeks, according to Fix the Court’s research.

Top courts in Connecticut, Georgia, Kentucky, South Dakota and Wisconsin held virtual arguments for the first time just last week. Kentucky, Georgia and Wisconsin provided a livestream of argument video, while South Dakota streamed audio live and Connecticut offered delayed audio.

Despite the unfamiliar technology, all five courts proceeded largely without difficulty. South Dakota justices briefly had trouble hearing one another, but a technician on standby was quickly able to remedy the situation.

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