Fed. Courts Extend Remote Audio Access To Civil Hearings

By Jack Karp | September 21, 2022, 1:51 PM EDT ·

The federal court system's policymaking body announced it would continue remote public court access and start regularly surveying its employees, while also again calling for the passage of legislation that would improve security for judges.

The Judicial Conference of the United States voted at its biannual September meeting on Tuesday to extend the policy that allows members of the public and media to listen to civil and bankruptcy court proceedings via teleconference, according to an announcement issued by the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts.

The vote extends a temporary exception to the judiciary's usual broadcasting policy put in place at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. That exception will now remain in effect for 120 days once the conference finds that the emergency conditions caused by the pandemic no longer exist.

"[N]early all courts continue to conduct civil and bankruptcy proceedings by video- or teleconferencing in at least some circumstances. The use of teleconferencing to allow the public and the media to listen to remote civil and bankruptcy proceedings continues to be a useful tool while physical access to courtrooms is restricted," the announcement said.

At least one advocate for greater judicial transparency called for the federal courts to do more in this area.

"Rather than simply extending its COVID policies for a few months, the conference should give each federal district court and bankruptcy court the ability to decide how it conducts its proceedings in perpetuity, pandemic or not," said Gabe Roth, executive director of Fix the Court.

The conference also approved a workplace survey to assess working conditions within the federal judiciary and evaluate the effectiveness of the more than 30 workplace-related improvements the federal courts have implemented.

The Federal Judicial Center will conduct the voluntary and anonymous survey of all judiciary employees and judges, according to the announcement.

Activists, who have been calling on the federal judiciary to implement such a survey following multiple high-profile accusations of sexual harassment and discrimination by judiciary employees, welcomed the announcement.

"This step will bring it in line with many other private and public sector workplaces, which have a historic practice of conducting climate surveys to ensure they are maintaining a safe, empowering, and inclusive culture," said Ally Coll, assistant professor of legal studies at George Mason University and president of the Purple Campaign, whose mission is to address workplace harassment.

It would be better, however, if the judiciary employed a third-party climate survey expert to craft and administer the survey, said Coll, who also called on the judiciary to share survey results publicly.

Finally, the judges who sit on the conference reiterated their call for Congress to pass legislation named for the son of New Jersey federal Judge Esther Salas, who was killed by a disgruntled litigant at the judge's home in 2020.

That bill would make it illegal for data brokers to buy or sell judges' personal information and would bar the posting of that information online. It would also establish a grant program to allow state and local governments to expand programs to remove judges' information from public databases.

"This legislation is a needed step in the protection of the judiciary, and the rule of law and we urge members of Congress to enact Daniel's Law as quickly as possible — this term — as it ultimately affects all Americans, not just judges," U.S. Circuit Judge Richard J. Sullivan, chair of the conference's Committee on Judicial Security, said in the announcement.

The legislation cleared the Senate Judiciary Committee in December without opposition, but was blocked in June by Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., who objected that the bill did not include similar protections for members of Congress.

"The safety of judges and their families is essential — not just to the individuals involved, but to our democracy. Our system of justice depends on judges who are free to carry out their constitutional duties without fear of reprisal or violence," Judge Sullivan said in the announcement.

The Administrative Office declined to comment beyond its announcement.

--Additional reporting by James Arkin. Editing by Patrick Reagan.

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