A trial for high court's webcast

First session tentatively set for Thursday as Md. judiciary pushes for visibility and access

November 27, 2006|By Andrea F. Siegel | Andrea F. Siegel,sun reporter

The first Webcast is tentatively planned Thursday — Maryland's highest court is poised to begin live Webcasting of its oral arguments, making the staid proceedings widely and immediately available for the first time to people outside its Annapolis courtroom.

The first Webcast is tentatively planned Thursday -- in time to iron out kinks for arguments in a case involving gay marriage Dec. 4. With interest groups and constituencies on both sides of the issue, that case is expected to draw a bevy of viewers, unlike most other cases.

"It's all part of this outreach thing," said Chief Judge Robert M. Bell, referring to the judiciary's push for heightened visibility and greater public education about what courts do.

"Other courts have done it. I don't see why we shouldn't do it," said Bell, referring to the Court of Appeals.

The increased access to the top state court is wise public policy, showing democracy in action, experts say. It comes as about half of state appellate courts in the country provide similar coverage, some on cable channels.

"The whole purpose behind what's known as electronic government is for ordinary citizens to get information and see how their government works," said Donald F. Norris, a public policy professor at University of Maryland, Baltimore County, whose specialties include electronic government. "The Court of Appeals providing greater access to its proceedings is a good thing."

The high court generally decides which cases to hear, but must hear cases involving the death penalty, redistricting and the removal of certain officials.

Outside of a few high-profile cases, even proponents doubt that a bird's-eye view of the seven crimson-robed judges questioning attorneys in their elaborate courtroom will be a big draw. The 90-seat courtroom is rarely filled, though once in a while it draws an overflow crowd.

"I don't think it will ever break the Nielsen ratings," said Carmen M. Shepard, who argued a dozen cases during her 16 years in the Maryland attorney general's office and is now in private practice. "But I think it says something positive about our legal system to say that the highest court in our state is inviting the public to see how it works and watch."

Lawrence Fletcher-Hill, who argued before the court as a former chief of litigation for the state attorney general's office and is now in private practice, expressed concerns that lawyers might use the podium to try to "communicate to a wider audience. "

"If people grandstand -- there is always the potential for that," he said.

But he said most lawyers are mindful of the need to present their case and succinctly respond to judges' questions.

Unlike in courtroom dramas, lawyers before the Court of Appeals are wedded to the lectern to make their arguments. It has a microphone and lights that signal how many minutes remain for them to speak.

Neither the judges, who have occasionally allowed broadcast cameras to videotape oral arguments, nor lawyers are likely to play to the cameras, Bell said. He noted that the presence of broadcast cameras has not mattered before.

The first Webcasts are a pilot project, and if a glitch develops, the court will aim for its January session, said Sally Rankin, a court spokeswoman.

The court expects to archive oral arguments on its Web site, largely in hopes that students will use them.

C-Span-like official Webcasts of the somber and tradition-steeped appellate court are a world apart from the notion of live broadcasts of high-profile criminal trials replete with emotional witnesses and lawyers playing to a jury.

Maryland does not allow cameras in its lower courts for criminal cases. They are permitted for civil hearings only if all parties agree, but that has taken place rarely, if at all.

An estimated 50 million viewers watched at least some portion of the televised oral arguments before the Florida Supreme Court in the 2000 presidential election dispute, said Craig Waters, the court's spokesman.

That helped people understand the legal, not just the political, side of the high-profile case, he said.

"The gay marriage case, that might be watched, maybe a death penalty case might be watched," said law professor William Reynolds, who teaches Internet law at the University of Maryland.

Other cases that are about high-profile issues, political dramas, or that have advocacy groups or constituencies, might attract viewers, he said.

Arcane legal questions, such as whether a state agency followed its own regulations, probably would not, he said. Whether anyone but lawyers might watch the judges hash out the nitty-gritty of rules of procedure is doubtful.

But the Webcasts would be useful teaching devices, especially in law school classes in appellate advocacy and constitutional law -- as well as to depict the shaming of attorneys hauled before the top court on disciplinary charges, Reynolds said.

Law firms could use it to assess the performance of lawyers. Proud but distant kin could watch a recent graduate sworn in to practice law.

The Florida Supreme Court has been broadcasting live on cable television, Webcasting and providing satellite feeds for stations since 1997, Waters said.

On the first day of broadcasting, learning that he'd be on Tallahassee television was the last straw for the first lawyer in the first case, Waters recalled. He fainted. The broadcast featured the chief justice calling out for a doctor.

Florida courts also developed curricula for middle schools and higher tied to oral arguments in certain cases.

Coincidentally, one of the first dealt with the right of a defendant to confront witnesses against him: Did that have to be face to face, or could it be by satellite hook-up?

andrea.siegel@baltsun.com

The Maryland judiciary's Web site is www.courts.state.md.us.

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