Court is in session — and online — in Quincy, Mass.

OpenCourt looks to balance transparency and sensitivity

Movies and TV shows present courtrooms as places where life’s most dramatic moments play out.

But there’s another side to legal proceedings — routine, mundane, necessary — and Web users can now see them in all their quotidian glory, from the Quincy District Court in Massachusetts.

The court is working with WBUR, the Public Broadcasting Service news channel in Boston, to present OpenCourtwhich streams court sessions daily in an effort that not only brings transparency to the legal process but also tackles IT and policy issues, such as bandwidth, archiving and closure of sessions to the public.

Visitors to the website, which went live May 2, can click on a window that puts them in the courtroom. The view is from a single, static camera unobtrusively placed to the side of the courtroom. The sessions are from one courtroom at a time and so far have included a lot of arraignments, new arrests and summons, and other mostly routine proceedings.

The website also includes features designed to educate people about the judicial process, including a glossary of terms visitors are likely to hear and audio interviews with court personnel. And, of course, people watching the action can tweet their comments at OpenCourt’s Twitter page.

OpenCourt was developed under the name Order in the Court 2.0 with funding from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. It is an effort to provide transparency, a C-SPAN for the judiciary, WBUR producer Val Wang writes in a blog post on the site.

But the project involves more than just putting a webcam in the courtroom and turning it on. It was developed with an advisory board of judges, lawyers, district attorneys, clerks and others involved in the law that juggles issues of openness and sensitivity. 

“We want to find the right balance between the public’s right to know and citizens’ rights to a fair trial and to be able to come to the court system for protection,” Wang writes.

Transparency doesn’t mean showing everything that happens in court, for instance. Wang writes that cases involving minors or victims of sexual assault or abuse are not shown, nor are domestic cases such as those involving a restraining order. Jury selection also isn’t shown and the camera doesn’t show the jurors' faces.

The producers are wrestling with the question of whether archives of court proceedings should be freely available online. WBUR and OpenCourt have intended to make archives available, according to a post on the site. But the Norfolk County district attorney has asked that access be prevented because of concern that it could taint the jury pool and lead to cases being appealed. OpenCourt’s advisory board is considering the question.

Putting the court online also required a bandwidth upgrade for the court house built in 1972, a task that proved more difficult than expected, Wang writes. But after ruling out some options that were too expensive — such as T1 lines — and going back and forth with a contractor that didn’t deliver, they installed a WiMax dish on the court house roof, drilled a hole and ran wires “three floors down into the basement’s telecom closet.”

With ample bandwidth in hand, the sessions stream seamlessly. They might not have many Perry Mason moments, but they do give viewers an accurate picture of the legal process.

About the Author

Kevin McCaney is editor of Defense Systems. Follow him on Twitter: @KevinMcCaney.

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