Speeches

Downloading the Judiciary
Chief Justice Thomas J. Moyer
Nov. 19, 1999

Most citizens never have the chance to witness the transformation of the Ohio Constitution from parchment, to decisions affecting millions of people. But that could change in coming years as the Supreme Court of Ohio explores the possibility of broadcasting oral arguments over the Internet.

If challenges such as cost, lighting, and camera placement can be overcome, the court’s oral arguments should be available on-line within three to four years.

The foremost reason for making the judiciary more accessible is that all courts are the citizens’ courts. It is the public’s trust and confidence, not law books that grant the courts the moral authority necessary to enforce the rule of law. But for many people the court system is shrouded in mystery: men and women dressed in robes that date to the first millenium using a language that appears arcane. Being able to see the court over the Internet would dispel that perception and help de-mystify the work of judges.

The only contact many citizens have with the courts is not of their choosing: settling a traffic violation, ending a marriage or being party to a lawsuit. It is usually not a pleasant experience. The improved understanding of courts that should result from computer access to proceedings should help dissipate that uneasy feeling.

Being able to see the work of the court also should help citizens make better choices. Thomas Jefferson’s concept of democracy suggests that citizens have a responsibility to stay informed of the workings of all branches of government, including the judiciary. A recent survey commissioned by the American Bar Association reveals that the more knowledge citizens have about state courts the higher their level of confidence in them.

Yet the courts have traditionally been the least accessible, and the least understood of the three branches of government. Presidents and governors conduct news conferences about policy decisions and campaign promises. And for years legislators have conducted business under the watchful eye of the television lens. But judicial codes of conduct require that members of the judicial branch refrain from commenting on issues that may come before them for decision. So providing greater access to the courts via the Internet broadens the concept of democracy in a judicial setting.

Seeing courtroom proceedings also will dispel myths perpetuated by television programs such as The Practice, L.A. Law and Judge Judy. Citizens who watch a real court will see for themselves that high levels of courtroom drama are more at home on T-V entertainment programming, than in state courts.

The current Supreme Court web page has a wealth of information that people will find helpful. Perhaps of utmost importance is that the court’s web page contains the guiding doctrine for judicial decisions: The Ohio Constitution. Consulting a readily available copy of the Constitution is vital to people reviewing Supreme Court decisions, which are instantaneously released over the Internet.

The media are already benefiting from the computer distribution of court information. Because few courtrooms are large enough to seat both citizens, and dozens of reporters and cameras, the Internet will help ease physical constraints. In the highly publicized tort reform decision, the Communications Office of the Ohio Supreme Court took note that due to its posting on the Internet, only a few dozen printed copies of the court’s opinion were distributed.

A decision has not been made on whether the Court’s web page will allow for the retrieval of previously recorded arguments. But if that option is pursued it will benefit lawyers, judges, historians and students. Judges will be able to download recorded oral arguments enabling them to measure the nuance that does not easily translate to a transcript. Lawyers will be able to use the video in preparing for a case. What historian or student would not gain a broader understanding of the courts if they could view the actual arguments that produce a landmark decision?

In Ohio, the proceedings of the General Assembly are available live on-line. And the courtroom activities of the Delaware Municipal Court and Supreme Courts in states such as Florida and Georgia also can be accessed over the Internet. In August, an attempted murder case in Florida became the first aired over a court-established Internet connection.

A vast amount of other computer technology is being used in some courts. Court stenographers, for example, now provide real-time reporting of testimony. This can reduce legal expenses, and delays related to litigation.

Some courts allow witnesses to provide testimony by way of video links, and the Supreme Court of the United States has accepted written arguments produced on CD-ROM. Some court observers say the next technological development in the courtroom will be to allow juries to use computers in the jury box and during deliberations. These examples indicate that the information age is making its presence felt in the courtroom.

Internet access to court proceedings may raise criticisms first aired when cameras were allowed in the courtroom: that it leads to "grandstanding" by lawyers and possibly judges. Nearly two decades of camera access suggests this is a moot point. In fact, possibly, the opposite is true. Increased public access to the courts will benefit not only the citizens, but also the administration of justice.