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May 3, 2011, 1 p.m.

Reality TV: OpenCourt has begun its livestream of the judicial system

OpenCourt is about as real as reality TV can get when it doesn’t involve Kardashians, real housewives, or people trapped on an island. That’s because OpenCourt, which launched yesterday, offers a view inside the legal system — specifically, the Quincy District Court here in Massachusetts, where traffic infractions, drug cases, and arraignments of all kinds now unfold not only in the courtroom, but also via streaming video.

The streaming is the next step in what was formerly known as Order in the Court 2.0, the winner of a 2010 Knight News Challenge grant and a project with an explicit goal of making the courts as transparent as the other branches of government. It’s something that seems simple as a premise: Put a webcam in a courtroom, and, boom, livestreamed court proceedings. But of course it’s tricker than that; otherwise, the Knight Foundation may not have awarded $250,000 to the WBUR-led project.

“The truth of the matter is when we put this out there the concept is so simple,” John Davidow, OpenCourt’s executive producer, told me. “We’re just going to stream live what takes place in public.”

A test run for transparency

The tasks OpenCourt is addressing are technical as much as they are legal, and sometimes conventional. The project operates within the boundaries of camera-use in the courts (video recording is permitted here in Massachusetts but can be limited by judges — though the current law may be broadened). But it still must confront concerns from the legal community, and ultimately try to balance the idea of transparency with the right to a fair trial.

But since there is no universal standard for new media access when it comes to the legal system in the US, OpenCourt is also a test case. Walking into any random courtroom, there’s no way of knowing whether tweeting is allowed, whether recording is an option, or even whether the use of a laptop is acceptable. That’s why Davidow says OpenCourt is an experiment, and one that will need to be watched closely if it’s to be duplicated elsewhere.

“It’s a pilot,” Davidow told me. “It’s now a reality and off the white board. More and more issues will come forward.”

And already something has come forward. On its first day of operation, the Norfolk County District Attorney’s office filed a a motion to close access to OpenCourt’s archives. An attorney from the DA’s office said the archives would present a lasting, un-editable record if inappropriate or inaccurate information — the names of crime victims, say, or of confidential informants — were to come out in a hearing. Judge Mark Coven denied the motion, saying “respectfully, I can’t address hypotheticals.”

Defining an open system

The true hurdles for OpenCourt, as Davidow described them, come in defining the parameters of how, what, and when the video feed would be active. He and his staffJoe Spurr, OpenCourt’s director, and Val Wang, its producer — decided the video stream would be live only when a judge is presiding over a case and when an OpenCourt producer is present. (In other words, this won’t be the equivalent of a traffic cam staring at the bench.) Davidow said they decided that the judge (who has a laptop monitoring the feed) will have discretion over whether the video is online or not. And that will largely depend on the case, Davidow said. (Though, after consulting with their advisory group of lawyers, judges, academics, and others, the team decided not to broadcast restraining order hearings as a rule.) The team had to be mindful, Davidow noted, of how being transparent could cause additional harm to people or prevent them from appearing in court at all.

But rather than setting out more guidelines for limiting the use of live video, the OpenCourt team has tried to find ways to make the camera and what it represents less of an issue. Beginning late last year, they held a series of meetings with the community in and around the court to familiarize others with the project, the gear, and the people who would be filming hearings every day. The camera, and the producer who operates it, have their own pocket in the courtroom and have become something of a fixture. (On the stream, you might notice, not many folks look towards the camera.)

“When you put a TV camera some place, people eventually forget about it,” Davidow said. “There’s a comfort level with it; you get used to it. That has helped the project immensely.”

Watching OpenCourt is C-SPAN-esque — or maybe Court TV-esque (or is that now truTV-esque?) — minus the call-in shows and podium-thumping speeches from politicians. Defendants shuffle in and out, charges are explained, and things follow course from there. It’s an unfiltered eye into the legal process, like staring down at an engine as it’s working.

It’s also more than a little ironic: Courts are open, but are they open open? “Courts have enjoyed what they referred to as ‘virtual obscurity,'” Davidow said. “Yes, justice is done in public, but to see it you need to go to court.”

A judicial education

Watching the video feed also makes you appreciate the simplicity of the kit OpenCourt has put together to create such a seamless product. As the team explains on their “Open Your Court” page, a DIY run-through for filming your local legal system, they use a couple of MacBook Pros, a Canon HD camcorder, and Livestream to get things up and running. One of the project’s goals, said Spurr, is to offer other courts full guidance on using cameras in court — and that guidance includes technology details and other best practices. “It’s about iterability,” Spurr said, “and being able to create an ideal environment that is forward thinking: What could a courtroom look like?”

What OpenCourt is encouraging is more interaction with, if not more information about, the court system. Aside from the livestream, the project is also providing free WiFi at the courthouse for anyone who wants to come in to cover a case. In that, Davidow said, the project could be a boon to local bloggers and citizen journalists, giving them an additional resource for covering the community. It’s also clear that OpenCourt could be useful to understaffed newsrooms as a way of keeping track of cases as they move through the system. “I’d argue that nothing compares to actually being there and seeing with your own eyes,” he said. “At the same time, maybe some news organizations would find efficiency in that setup.” (The Quincy Patriot-Ledger has already embedded the OpenCourt stream in a story.)

While the goal is to throw open the doors of the court, it is also to educate the public about the court’s workings. Though one of the benefits of operating in a district court is that it’s the most accessible step in the judiciary (traffic/moving violations, fines, the types of misdemeanors you don’t want others to know about — all go through district court), there’s still an element of the unknown about how courts work. This is why, in addition to the stream on opencourt.us, you’ll also find a schedule of the day’s cases, a glossary of legal terms, and a rundown of the people who make the court work.

“One of the reasons the courts really embraced this idea is because people don’t understand some basic concepts,” Davidow said. “The courts felt this was a way for people to start learning about how justice is done in this country.”

POSTED     May 3, 2011, 1 p.m.
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