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What's On at a Courthouse Near You

posted by Melissa Jacoby

In addition to a post last week broadly raising visitors' physicial interaction with courts, an earlier post discussed variation in the website availability of daily calendars for U.S. bankruptcy courtrooms. Today's post follows up on this narrower thread for two reasons. First, some who responded privately were interested in hearing what else was discovered. Second, the end of Judith Resnik's recently published Addison C. Harris lecture stresses that public access to court proceedings is more than of merely conceptual importance. While she observes that, "obtaining  a robust audience for courts also requires structural attention," it turns out that "many judges report their courtrooms to be lonely spaces" and "[i]n contrast to the popularity of media shows about courts, real judges often find themselves without an audience."(p. 339) These were not references to bankruptcy court (the lecture recognizes in other places that the nature of bankruptcy work occupies more courtroom time notwithstanding the phenomena of managerial judging and vanishing trials), but tee up the issue raised earlier: why don't all public courts post calendars on their websites? 

We could come up with a long list of reasons why a person doesn't go visit court that are unrelated to the court itself. But one shouldn't discount the difficulty of knowing when to show up. My original query about calendars focused on bankruptcy courts, as will much of the rest of this post, but of course the question is appropriate to ask about all public courts (whether the answer should differ depending on type of court is a subject for another day). Needless to say, the modest content that follows represents neither an exhaustive search nor a systematic sample, but are points I gathered from feedback to the original post.

If I'm not mistaken, everyone who offered feedback came from a district in which bankruptcy courts posted calendars on their websites. Some were surprised to hear that this was not universal. 

One reader suggested that nonuniform technology within the federal judiciary probably explained a lot of the variation and perhaps the ease of generating content for public view. A random comparison of websites is almost guaranteed to be consistent with the technology theory, as they are far from uniform. I would embellish this by noting the challenge of frequent schedule changes; if the calendar does not directly feed onto the website, questions arise about how often to update the information.   

Everyone probably could agree, though, that technology is unlikely to be an exclusive explanation. It presumably is coupled with different sensibilities about what constitutes adequate notice of events in court, a cost-benefit on resources, and who the audience might be (e.g. lawyers, financial reporters, and others who follow specific cases and matters via other routes, including but not limited to PACER). Or maybe no one has brought the website question, and the variation in practices, to their attention. 

Readers also encouraged comparison of the calendars of district courts and bankruptcy courts. This suggestion dovetailed with plans to visit district and bankruptcy courts in various locations for research purposes. The first several I checked were parallel: either both were available or neither in a single district. But this is not universally true. That is, in some districts, the bankruptcy court posts a calendar of daily events in each courtroom on its website while the district court does not (and, presumably, the reverse could be true).

Additional thoughts are still very much welcome, whether in comments below or at bankruptcyprof@gmail.com.  

Comments

The court of appeals in my circuit and the district court and bankruptcy court in my district all post calendars of daily events on their web sites. The calendars of the district judges and bankruptcy judges are available many days in advance.

The state courts in my county have nothing similar, perhaps because those courts are technologically not up to the task (they don't have electronic filing, either), but more likely because there just isn't that much interest, to be frank. Not once have I seen members of the public show up in my courtroom or any other simply to watch the proceedings. And I doubt this has anything to do with the availability of information over the internet.

I must say, I bridle at the continued veiled suggestion on this site that in some way courts are attempting to hide their proceedings from view. Anyone who wants to know what I'm up to can find out easily, and people are more than welcome to come watch. They'll likely find it a rapid cure for insomnia, of course, since what I do is highly technical, not readily understandable by lay people, and bears no resemblance at all to television courtroom dramas -- have you considered that as a reason for the public's lack of interest? -- but people are more than welcome all the same.

In short, Prof. Jacoby, there's no scandal here, nor is there any fodder for a scholarly article. I'd let it drop.

Bankruptcy Judge, This follow-up arose, as mentioned, because other judges expressed interest in hearing more, but you and I agree on at least one thing: I don't know of any scandal. Moreover, I am not looking for one. One of my interests is the opposite: to explore mechanisms (of a wide variety) that might affect how the public perceives the bankruptcy system and its impact. Rather than trying to expose something pernicious, I believe that people would gain confidence in the integrity of the system if more of them had a first-hand account. Certainly that would be better than learning about bankruptcy from, say, the very influential campaigns of the those who lobbied for the 2005 Bankruptcy Reform Act.

As noted, there are many reasons that people might never visit court. For people who don't work in a courthouse every day, though, a visit to a courthouse can be intimidating and hard to figure out even if the court aspires for an inclusive atmosphere. The inability to determine what time to be there, etc. does add barriers even if that's not the intent. And, especially in courts with fewer judges, one could get there and there might be literally nothing to see when the judges and staff are engaged in non-courtroom work.

To state the obvious, courts must weigh many other issues against public accessibility (like safety and security of court personnel). In that vein, my inquiry came from an earnest place, trying to learn about the legitimate downsides to posting calendars.

I'm more than happy to take you at your word that you aren't muckraking. There's really no muck to rake, as we both observed.

Motives aside, though, I wonder at the usefulness of your inquiry. I agree that it takes a little bit of effort (though by and large only a little) for people to find out the times when courtroom are operating. But even armed with that knowledge, most people have better things to do than visit courthouses simply for recreation or for a civics lesson. Court is about the last place the average citizen wants to be unless he's forced to be there.

More important, courts aren't designed for civics lessons. They conduct the business before them according to the arcane rules of what has become, for better or worse, a highly complex legal system. That system isn't understandable to anyone without the proper training. So the average citizen is unlikely to gain anything useful from visiting courtrooms when court is in session other than the knowledge (1) that he doesn't understand the legal system of his own country, and (2) that what he sees on television bears no resemblance to reality.

In short, I would indeed be concerned if it were difficult or impossible to find out where the courts are and when they're doing business. But it's not. The information is out there. What's more, people don't seem to want it, and they wouldn't get much out of having it anyway. So it seems to me that fussing about how court web sites are set up and whether they contain the judges' daily calendars is really not worthwhile.

(I should add that having the daily calendars on the internet is quite useful to practicing lawyers. But unless I'm mistaken, the utility of court web sites to the bar wasn't the question you were raising.)

Part of it is that so much litigation concludes with a settlement. In my district, bankruptcy courts are the only federal courts with a routine cattle call calendar. The other courts rarely schedule hearings until pre-trial. Those hearings are usually scheduled individually and subject to cancellation without notice at the last minute. There's no way for a non-party to determine if a hearing is set and actually going forward, unless they're watching the ECF calendar or calling the clerks office.

Also, don't forget the criminal side of federal court. I've been in both BK and criminal court. The criminal courts have fairly regular calendars. Magistrates usually do arraignments in the morning, so that defendants can bond out that day. Felony sentencings are set for routine calendars before, so that the US Marshals can coordinate protection and transportation.

I did sentencing work for a district judge. These are pretty grim affairs that may be educational but certainly aren't enjoyable or even morally edifying. The US Marshals are usually edgy. In our court, there was one posted by the door who kept his hand on his sidearm the whole time. Then their are usually at least two more Marshals seated behind the defendant. One keeps his eyes on the defendant and the other is constantly scanning the courtroom. At a sentencing the defendant's family is there, if they have one. Most are drug crimes. The judge reads a long colloquy describing the victim's background, criminal history, and nature of the crime. Sometimes you get pretty heart wrenching testimony from parents about their children's descent into addiction, usually meth or pills. Either that or you find out that the defendant is a semi-literate Mexican drug mule in deep with whoever brought him across the border. Then the judge tells the defendant to stand up and they get sent down. It's not a whole lot of fun to watch some poor bastard do the mental math on a 96 month sentence in a system that doesn't offer parole.

David Fuller: Your first point is very much as the heart of Professor Resnik's longstanding writing about the changing nature of the work of the federal district court and it revolving far less around trials. One of the main issues she raises in the lecture mentioned above is how courtrooms still are physically at the centerpiece of federal district courts even though they are no longer the locus of most of their work.

Having watched plea colloquies and sentencing hearings in district courts, I agree that the subject matter is extremely serious. Whether people affirmatively want to see these proceedings is beyond my expertise (there's a book just out suggesting that people are drawn to very disturbing events, but I don't feel equipped to weigh in on the social science of it). As I read Professor Resnik's work, a directly edifying or enjoyable experience is not so much the point as is a more robust relationship overall between the public and the exercise of governmental power. But surely I'm not doing her point justice in these short descriptions.

Bankruptcy Judge: We agree again that 1) it would not be productive to spend all summer thinking about website calendars (I can assure you that won't happen); and 2) the daily calendars are useful to the bar (and I am guessing you'd concur that they have utility for journalists, law students and their professors, etc.), although the bar has other avenues to get the information in districts without the web calendars. But I am going to continue analyzing the insights of scholars of the federal district courts to consider how they might help address more substantive challenges in the bankruptcy system; this perspective has often been lacking in legal scholarship on bankruptcy.

I go regularly to bankruptcy court and federal district court (mostly criminal cases). I don't see federal district court as very inviting to casual observers. One summer I saw some students who showed up at the federal building and told the court security officers at the scanning station that they just wanted to observe court in action. The CSO told them if they weren't there for a particular case, they would have to leave. I thought that was kind of a shame. Occasionally a reporter shows up and they usually manage to get in, but the security atmosphere in our local federal courts probably intimidates casual observers.
I think it would be interesting to watch a federal criminal trial (for a little while anyway). I don't think most of the proceedings would go over the head of the average person.

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