Online justice

June 15, 2006

In April, while Maryland's Court of Appeals heard oral arguments on what constitutes reckless endangerment of a fetus, four groups of college students wanted to sit in on the proceedings. The red-carpeted courtroom, with historic wood paneling and comfortable leather chairs for the seven judges, symbolizes the administration of justice. But for most Marylanders, the court is truly symbolic: It has only about 90 seats, so the number of people who can witness live proceedings is necessarily limited.

The need to accommodate more students and other members of the public has prompted court officials to step up their exploration of additional options. Together with communication specialists at the University of Maryland, they are looking into the possibility of broadcasting oral arguments either online or through a cable connection. Whatever the method, we welcome the idea.

Under current Maryland law, still photographers and broadcast cameras are allowed in the state's highest courtroom, usually to take pictures that can be used later in print or on television. While the rules don't seem to prohibit live broadcasts of oral arguments, there are generally no arrangements for such broadcasts or even later broadcasts of complete arguments.

Some of those arguments are mundane, but others can be profound, as Maryland's highest court wrestles with such issues as capital punishment and free speech, as well as civil and criminal rights. State appellate court arguments may not be ratings blockbusters, but greater access to courts by citizens can only further the cause of democracy. As the presidential election of 2000 was still unfolding, viewers around the world were able to watch the arguments related to the vote recount as they were presented live before the Florida Supreme Court.

The longtime effort to open courts to cameras is taking on new technological wrinkles. According to the National Center for State Courts, the high courts of 21 states put at least some of their proceedings online. A 2001 study by the center noted that 36 states allow some degree of camera access in both trial and appellate courts.

While Maryland prohibits cameras at criminal trials, it does allow them at civil trials - if all parties agree - but that rarely happens. Providing Internet or cable access to certain Court of Appeals proceedings seems the very least that should be done to allow residents across the state to see how the third branch of government works.

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