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Federal Court leaders approve live audio for some non-criminal proceedings

Federal court leaders on Tuesday approved live audio streaming of some proceedings in civil and bankruptcy cases, scaling back a policy started during the coronavirus pandemic and expanding public access to the courts.

The Judicial Conference of the United States, the governing body of the courts, has not considered relaxing rules allowing the release of criminal cases, an issue that members of Congress have pressed because of upcoming federal court cases. former President Donald Trump. The conference also did not address the ethics issues facing the Supreme Court, despite criticism from Democratic lawmakers.

The conference traditionally does not allow cameras or live streaming from federal courtrooms. That changed during the pandemic, when judges were allowed to set up remote audio access for any civil or bankruptcy proceedings due to restricted access to courthouses.

The new policy, which takes effect September 22, will allow judges to provide access only to non-trial proceedings in civil or bankruptcy cases that do not involve testimony. The conference examines whether such access increases the risk of witness intimidation or complicates sequestration when proceedings are accessible to persons not present in the courtroom.

Tuesday’s announcement comes after the biennial meeting of the conference, composed of 26 federal judges and led by Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. In response to questions from reporters, the chairman of the body’s executive committee, the Judge Lavenski R. Smith. , said attendees did not discuss a request from Democrats that the conference investigate omissions in previous financial disclosure reports filed by Justice Clarence Thomas.

In April, Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.) and Representative Hank Johnson (D-Georgia) asked the conference to examine Thomas’ failure to disclose travel and real estate deals with his friend and benefactor. longtime Harlan Crow. In Thomas’ most recent annual report, released last month, Justice detailed private jet trips with the billionaire Dallas businessman and updated his filings to include a property sale there has years in Crow.

Smith told reporters there was no update Tuesday on the status of the lawmakers’ request. The conference could potentially consider any action taken by a judicial conference committee investigating allegations involving Thomas.

Smith said some lawmakers who addressed the conference Tuesday generally raised the issue of the Supreme Court’s ethics. Congressional Democrats supported legislation to impose an ethics policy on the nine justices. Senate Judiciary Chairman Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.), sitting next to Roberts during the closed-door session with lawmakers, used his remarks to urge the chief justice to establish a code of conduct binding, according to a person familiar with the remarks who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the private meeting.

Durbin told the justices he was saddened that the high court was facing an ethical crisis, this person said, adding that Durbin described the crisis as being the work of the court itself, in part because of the lack of enforceable policy.

Although cameras are common in some state and local courts, federal rules generally prohibit the photography and broadcast of federal criminal cases. The Supreme Court began livestreaming audio of oral arguments when the court was closed to the public during the pandemic. This popular practice continued when the justices resumed in-person arguments last fall. During the pandemic, some criminal proceedings were conducted via videoconferencing, but federal courts have mostly abandoned the practice.

News organizations and transparency advocates had urged the conference in a letter last month to allow trial courts to allow remote audio access to all civil and bankruptcy proceedings, including those with testimony. As an example, the groups cited a civil trial made public via Zoom last February regarding lead contamination of drinking water in Flint, Michigan. Similarly, the criminal trial of Derek Chauvin, the former police officer convicted of killing George Floyd, was broadcast from a Minnesota state courtroom.

Gabe Roth, of the judicial transparency group Fix the Court, called the updated policy a step backwards.

Advocates “realize that we probably won’t have live video of most federal trials in the near future. But limit audio access to debates without witnesses? This is a step backwards, especially since it is not difficult to turn off recording devices or mask a voice if, for example, a witness is a minor or a victim of a crime ” Roth said.

Why Trump’s Georgia state court trial will be televised, but others won’t

In a separate letter, about three dozen House Democrats asked court leaders to go further and allow public access to videos of Trump’s trials on federal charges related to the 2020 election and the preservation of classified documents at his residence and Mar-a-Lago complex.

“It is imperative that the Conference ensures timely access to accurate and reliable information regarding these cases and all their proceedings, given the extraordinary national importance to our democratic institutions and the need for transparency,” said in the letter led by Rep. Adam B. Schiff (Calif.). “Given the historic nature of the charges in these cases, it is difficult to imagine a more powerful circumstance for televised debates. »

Trump’s legal team has said it would welcome additional transparency.

Judge Roslynn Mauskopf, director of the Administrative Office of the United States Courts and secretary of the conference, said in response that the letter would be considered by the committee reviewing proposed changes to the rules that currently prohibit the broadcast of criminal proceedings.

Johnson, one of several members of Congress who spoke Tuesday, said the Judicial Conference should listen to the public. He noted that the judge overseeing the election interference case against Trump in Georgia state court said the case would be televised live and streamed online.

“People want to see and hear what’s happening in the federal prosecution” against the former president, Johnson said.

John Wagner contributed to this report


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