Going into last week’s meeting at Quincy District Court, Joan Kenney, the state court’s chief public information officer and I had a quick phone meeting on what we were going to talk about at an upcoming meeting with Judge Andre A. Gelinas. Judge Gelinas, a retired justice who sat on the Massachusetts Appeals Court, now serves as the Special Advisor to the Chief Justice for Administration & Management for Information Technology.

In short, Judge Gelinas was going to be a legal referee for Order in the Court 2.0 who will help us determine what the project could or should be able to do in court. Another attendee due at the meeting was Judge Mark Coven, the Chief Judge at Quincy Court who has been an eager supporter and advocate for this project.

Joan and I decided that we’d keep the agenda short and simple. We wanted to get the judge’s advice on these three issues:

  1. How should we post online the daily docket of court hearings each day?
  2. What concerns might Judge Gelinas have on live blogging from the courtroom?
  3. What concerns would he have about live video streaming from the courtroom?

Legal Issues Arise

The meeting took place the following day. It only lasted 45 minutes, but as you can see below the discussion was wide-ranging and covered many complex legal issues. Again and again, our conversation came back to the central issue of Order in the Court 2.0: How do you balance the public’s right to know and the public’s right to a fair trial? Here are some of the topics we touched upon during our meeting with the judges.

  • Domestic violence cases involving individuals who are in this country without legal documentation. Would photographing these individuals or posting their names online prevent victims from coming forward?
  • What would the rules be regarding open court discussions of the mental health issues of defendants? Would this be a violation of the state’s Criminal Offender Record Information statute), which protects the rights of privacy of individuals charge or convicted of crimes?
  • Criminal records are constantly read in open court, especially during bail proceedings. Would the recording and posting of these criminal records online violate the CORI?
  • In addition to live streaming of courtroom proceedings, would Order in the Court 2.0 be archiving its content? If so, would the project become an official “keeper of the records” and have to follow state statutes that oversee such records?
  • What about the court’s “virtual right of privacy”? This is the concept that the information the courts holds isn’t immediately accessible to the public. For example, if an individual wants to see the file associated with a particular case, that person has to go to the court where the case is being heard and physically obtain the file from the court clerk. In the court’s opinion, this barrier to immediate access protects the information in those files from companies like data miners who could use that information for profit. If Order in the Court 2.0 is posting everything it records online, would this be in violation of the virtual right of privacy? And just as importantly, should this virtual right of privacy be preserved?
  • What about cases where a defendant claims mistaken identity? Would posting their pictures online compromise their ability to get a fair trial?

Ground Rules

At our meeting both judges made it clear that our project would have to establish some legal ground rules on how we approach these issues. Judge Coven, who is a strong believer that anything in open court should be fair game, wants to make sure that cases heard at Quincy District Court would not be compromised by our project. He and Judge Gelinas felt that we would need to do some fairly significant legal research to explore the issues that came up during our discussion.

In our current configuration, no one working on this project will have any formal legal training. Due to that fact, the rest of the meeting was spent doing some serious brainstorming on how we would get started working on the legal guidelines that clearly are required for this project to go forward. It was determined that we would all reach out to our contacts within the Greater Boston legal academic community for some answers to the issues that had been raised.

The meeting made it clear that the work of Order in the Court 2.0 will be a useful resource for other projects that want to provide greater access to our nation’s courts. Though it was a short meeting, it clearly demonstrated the important work we have ahead of us.