Wichita — Order in the court, please, including you tweeter!
In a victory for news technology in federal courts, a judge is allowing a reporter to use the microblogging service Twitter to provide constant updates from a racketeering gang trial this week.
It’s not the first time online streaming has been allowed in courtrooms, but the practice is still rare in the federal system, especially in criminal cases.
A couple of lawyers voiced concern about the possibility that a juror might visit the online site to read the posts from Ron Sylvester, a reporter for the Wichita Eagle, but U.S. District Judge J. Thomas Marten said jurors are always told to avoid newspaper, broadcast and online reports.
“You either trust your jurors to live with the admonishment, or you don’t,” he said.
People use Twitter to update others on what they’re doing or observing. The postings, known as “tweets,” are limited to 140 characters and can be sent and received on a mobile phone or computer.
Sylvester has been using Twitter for a year to cover hearings and trials in state courts, but the racketeering trial of six Crips gang defendants that he’s covering online this week is his first in federal court.
His courtroom “tweets” from his cell phone have recounted testimony and offered some courtroom color. Among them:
• “Judge Marten is talking to reluctant witness in chambers with a court reporter transcribing the conversation.”
• “The witness who was yelling in the hallway earlier has not returned to the courthouse.”
• “Defendants are chatting and laughing among themselves.”
• “Exhibits are shown electronically. Every juror has a monitor in the box. There is a monitor at each lawyer’s table and one for the gallery.”
Sherry Chisenhall, executive editor of Sylvester’s newspaper, said Twitter is “another form of reporting news” that lends itself to courtroom coverage.
“He certainly has not sacrificed accuracy, quality and standards,” she said. “There is an immediacy that has been great for our audience.”
Among those who have signed up to follow Sylvester’s Twitter posts is the father of one of the defendants. He lives in Houston, Sylvester said, and can’t attend the trial.
“It does improve public access to the courts,” Sylvester said.
Across the country, tech-savvy federal judges are becoming increasingly receptive to live courtroom media coverage using emerging technologies. Such coverage from journalists reporting from trials in state courts is already common.
The federal judiciary has historically been more restrictive in criminal trials, with some U.S. Supreme Court justices adamantly opposed to cameras in their courts.
Federal judges have wide discretion on how to run trials when it comes to emerging online technologies.
“The more we can do to open the process to the public, the greater the public understanding — the more legitimacy the public system will have in the eyes of the public,” Marten said in an interview with The Associated Press.
“This is so far removed from cameras and, frankly, cameras are coming too,” Marten said of the blogging.
Other recent examples from the federal system:
• A federal judge in Massachusetts granted a request in January for online streaming of a hearing in a recording industry lawsuit against a Boston University student accused of illegally downloading music.
• A federal judge in Sioux City, Iowa, allowed a Cedar Rapids Gazette reporter to offer live blog updates in a January tax fraud trial from a laptop computer.
• The 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New York allowed live television coverage in December of arguments in the case of a Canadian engineer who wants to sue the United States for mistaking him for a terrorist and sending him to Syria.
• In perhaps the highest-profile appearance of new media in the federal courts, bloggers covering the 2007 CIA leak trial for former Vice President Dick Cheney’s chief of staff, I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby, were given the same credentials as traditional journalists.
Recording devices and cameras are prohibited in all federal courtrooms during criminal trials. In some high-profile cases the Supreme Court releases audio recordings of oral arguments.
Both the House and Senate Judiciary committees have passed legislation in the past two years that would authorize, but not require, cameras in federal courts. But neither the full House nor the Senate has voted on the legislation.
Marten said he anticipated that either the Judicial Conference of the United States or Congress would eventually give federal judges discretion to allow cameras into their courtrooms to give outsiders more access to the justice system.
“There have been enough public examples of trials being televised with appropriate safeguards that at some point the objections are going to dry up,” he said.
But resistance remains.
The Recording Industry Association of America has appealed the January decision by U.S. District Judge Nancy Gertner to allow a courtroom video service to transmit a webcast of the Boston hearing in the music downloading lawsuit. The group argues the webcast goes against federal court guidelines and threatens its ability to get a fair trial.
Fourteen news organizations, including the AP, have filed a brief to the 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in support of Gertner’s decision, arguing the webcast is in the public interest.
Sylvester has been invited to give a presentation to lawyers and judges on journalists’ use of Twitter at a July conference of the American Bar Association in Chicago.
“That will do more to help journalists than anything else,” he said.
Dave Aeikens, president of the Society of Professional Journalists, called Marten’s decision to allow courtroom Twitter postings “huge” for bolstering public access.
“The technology keeps changing,” Aeikens said. “How we gather and deliver news to people keeps changing. And the courts need to understand that and welcome that.”