the least dangerous blog
Posted in Access on Monday March 04 2013 @ 7:00am
Not long ago, Nina Totenberg noted that the Supreme Court of the United States was about to hear arguments in a case in which the defendant had filed a handwritten brief. She compared it to a long-ago case, Gideon v. Wainwright, that is celebrating its fiftieth anniversary, See Prisoner's Handwritten Petition Prompts Justices to Weigh Government Immunity, Nina Totenberg, Morning Edition, NPR (February 19, 2013).
This got us thinking (uh-oh!). Artist and Funk Queen Lynda Barry asks
Don't write like a girl, the theory being that They can tell gender by handwriting, and will grade accordingly, or at least have this in the backs of Their minds when grading. Beautifully handwritten addresses on wedding invitations are classy. A handwritten note sent via snail mail is quaint. A handwritten pleading in court means pro se, crazy, criminal, or uneducated.
Courts have rules about these things. Here are a few:
- Nebraska's Rule 9-4 allows pro se litigants to submit handwritten pleadings that follow the prescribed form. They must be in ink and somewhat neat.
- Washington's LCR No. 7 allows handwritten pleadings, but any written in cursive must include a typed or hand printed copy.
- The Pennsylvania Code's section 1005.1 just says no.
Well, you get the idea.
Handwritten pleadings illustrate the lines between access and utility. Yes, even in these days of texting, e-signatures, paperless offices, and Google goggles, we want everyone to be able to sit down and draft their own pleadings with whatever they happen to have available. On the other hand, what good are handwritten pleadings if the court can't read them? Or, what if the court is inundated with handwritten pleadings, leaving it no time to process important cases? There is some bad information going around jails in the U.S. that makes inmates think that they have legal rights to their own signature. Hence, handwritten pleadings may include a copyright symbol or other identifying marks. See The Anti-Government Movement Today Ericksen and Skove, Future Trends in State Courts 2006, 25-26.
Media Cheat Sheet
Posted in Access on Tuesday June 05 2012 @ 8:32am
For over a decade at NCSC, I worked in an office where we responded to hundreds of media queries about the court world each year. Here are a few helpful hints for the media (even for that obnoxious guy at that one place -- I was horribly happy when your magazine went under!):
- Court is not sensational. It is full of procedure (what you incorrectly call
technicalities). It is quite unlike courts on TV or movies -- if you don't believe me, believe Sonia Buck. It can be slow. You may have to do this boring thing called
waiting.While you do it, look around -- there are interesting things everywhere in a courthouse. There are wedding parties in hallways, families clustered together in grief or joy, business people crossing their t's and dotting their i's, art and architecture, lawyers who love nothing more than hanging out talking to people, and court employees who make it all run smoothly. The excitement comes from the fact that, most of the time, our boring little common law system works pretty well. Enjoy the pace.
- Be kind to jurors. If I learned one thing in my years finding content for the Jur-E Bulletin, it is that jurors are stressed out, and you are no help. Let them tell their story if they wish. If they don't wish, please go away. They have spent hours if not days, weeks, or months poring over evidence, listening to difficult testimony, and learning about their important role -- one they may be doing for the first and last time in their lives.
- There are not statistics about every part of everything that ever happened. Yes, NCSC's Court Statistics Project does a great job collecting and communicating court-related statistics. It is flattering of you to think they have the information you seek. However, many unknown unknowns remain. Courts tend to compile statistics annually, not hourly, so please be patient. Courts do not all do the same things or count those things the same way. Thus, a national number for any given question is often difficult to find. A good alternative is to research locally -- find a jurisdiction (city, county, state, region) that has a history of doing the kind of thing you're examining. Drug courts, for example, might be set up differently in different jurisdictions. Focus on a state or a few select counties where drug courts are similar, and where the programs keep the information you seek.
- Never say
among the first,if you must. No matter how unheard-of, whatever neat new thing you're writing about has probably been at least considered elsewhere. The second you say
first,a retired judge from Nebraska will call you and chew you out for not recognizing his efforts on the very topic back in 1946. A good example: DUI App Believed to Be First in Nation, Janice Morse, Cincinnati Enquirer (June 2, 2012).
- Listen and learn! One of the best reporters I ever talked to was one who listened to me blah blah blah on for about an hour about a then-recent Supreme Court case. He didn't have impossible yes-or-no, true/false questions already prepared for me. He wanted to learn about the case, and how the opinion would affect cases in his state. He hadn't already written it, he called to learn about it first. For the fine result, see Justice Reconsidered. Vince Darcangelo, Boulder Weekly (yes, I much prefer weeklies, with their sane deadlines!) (January 27, 2005).
- Learn the rules. The media represents the public; they have no more access or rights than anyone else. Judges aren't going to chatter on about a case like a blogger with too much time on her hands. What happens in grand juries, mediations, etc., is confidential. In Canada, petit juries are not permitted to speak to the media at all. Due to logistics and the public interest in keeping courts sane, fair, and orderly, there are rules about cameras in the courts. The rules were not created to make you, personally, miserable.
- PIOs are here to help you. They are cool people who know a lot.
No Longer Under A Rock
Posted in Access on Sunday November 13 2011 @ 8:50pm
sunshine laws are meant to promote openness and public trust and confidence. More sunshine, fewer bad deeds in the shadows, is how the thinking goes.
Privacy interests, though, are always a factor (sorry, RCFP). Courts have long struggled to maintain openness, yet be flexible enough to protect certain key players in the legal system -- witnesses, jurors, families. How much openness is enough? How much is harmful? Access to technology, new technologies, and the focus on public trust were (and still are) at odds.
One trend is the move of juvenile dependency hearings from closed to open hearings. When openness was being retooled, courts identified a set of hearing types that required more confidentiality than others -- say, family or mental health cases, with sensitive topics and vulnerable participants.
Dependency cases seem like they would fit right into this category, but further study determined that this was not necessarily the case. Accountability was a factor -- after too many botched cases, it became apparent that the public needed to know what the agencies were doing. The harm/privacy balance is still in force -- only now it is clear that the harm comes from the privacy.
A 2001 report on an Minnesota's practices found that open dependency hearings:
An Arizona study of 15 jurisdictions participating in an open hearing pilot project found minimal impact; indeed, children attended only six percent of the hearings.
These studies have at least one vocal critic. See When the Empirical Base Crumbles: The Myth That Open Dependency Proceedings Do Not PSychologically Damage Abused Children, William Wesley Patton, Law & Psych. Review (2009). However, child witnesses need not participate fully in every aspect of a hearing. The goal is to air agency activities. The self-proclaimed Better Courts for Kids, otoh, thinks closed courts cause harm.
Now, an L.A. judge is opening dependency hearings to the public.
See Los Angeles Juvenile Court Plans to Open Proceedings to Public, Garrett Therolf, L.A. Times (November 8, 2011).
See also one of the three or four copies in existence of: Provision of Information by Courts and Court Administrators: a Comparative Inventory of Eight European Countries and the USA, Dutch Council for the Judiciary, Utrecht/Leiden (2005). Better Courts for Kids has a nice resource guide, too.
It Was 20 Years Ago Today
Posted in Access on Wednesday August 04 2010 @ 4:11am
Well, 20 years plus a week that Bush I signed the ADA into law. What everyone feared -- an avalanche of litigation, a ruined economy -- never happened (well, at least not the avalanche of litigation, and certainly we can't blame the ADA for today's economic problems).
What did happen was this: quietly, and without much fanfare, society has become accustomed to ramps, railings, closed captioning, and other innovations that make life easier for people. Some of these innovations, called universal design, are useful to all of us at one time or another, particularly as society (read: Baby Boomers) ages.
And the major goal -- employment of individuals with disabilities (read: more taxpayers)? The Kessler Foundation and National Organization on Disability report that, according to their survey, only 21% of working-age individuals with disabilities are employed. For working-age people without disabilities, this number is 59%.
Internet access also continues to be a problem. Only 54% of individuals with disabilities have access to the information superhighway, compared with 85% of adults without disabilities.
Does the ADA apply to courts? Oddly enough, nobody was sure at first. But we know now that the answer is yes. Some questions remain -- how much access? Must every room in an entire courthouse be accessible? Or is it enough to have some rooms reserved for use by people with disabilities?
And access by whom? Parties, attorneys, judges, and court staff -- of course. But does a defendant's hearing-impaired brother get use of an interpreter at trial? What about the defendant's great-aunt? What if the great-aunt raised him?
NPR's Talk of the Nation discusses What's Changed in 20 Years Since ADA Passage, (July 28, 2010).
See also: the ADA megasite, housed by the DOJ. If you can't find it here, it probably doesn't exist.
As a p.s., Bush II signed the ADA Amendments Act in 2008. CHADD offers a nice summary.
Overlawyered or Overhyped?
Posted in Access on Wednesday July 14 2010 @ 4:35am
If you think things are crazy where you work, imagine this -- downtrodden celebrities (society's favorite kind) parading through, day after day, leaving paparazzi in their wake like so much confetti after a parade.
On top of that, it all takes place in a state where furloughs and other cutbacks have become de rigueur (though Furlough Fridays are, thankfully, over for now).
See Stars, Cameras and Theatrics Strain Courts, Michael Cieply, NYT (July 9, 2010).
L.A. court PIO Allan Parachini is the man! We remember back in the day when he would send out informational faxes regarding Winona's shoplifting case. Getting the word out to the people who are going to show up (whether invited or not) is just one of Mr. Parachini's tasks.
Eriq Gardner at THR, Esq., doesn't get it but tries with Are Celebrities to Blame for an Overburdened Court System? (July 12, 2010). It's not about the celebrity legal problems themselves -- they're not so different from anyone else's. It's the logistics. Traffic, security, cameras in the courts (and their concomitant procedures), long lines, parking...the confetti falls on all of these and more.
One person's DUI is another person's photo op. As the threshold for fame dips to a new low, gawkers increase and multiply. The result is chaos, which is just one more piece of the court PIO's life.
Posted in Access on Tuesday July 28 2009 @ 8:48pm
What security risks does your court face? Is anyone actually watching the screens of surveillance cameras? Are people with metal shanks hidden in their shoes waived through? Do security personnel stand with their backs to potential perps?
Who poses the bigger threat -- angry criminal defendants or religious women?
The Georgia Judicial Council issued a new policy allowing people in court to wear head coverings for religious or medical reasons. Special search procedures honoring the dignity and privacy of such people are outlined.
See Muslim Headscarves to Be Allowed in Georgia, Jim Galloway, Atlanta Journal-Constitution (July 24, 2009); and Deputy Alleges Security Violations in Atlanta Courthouse Shooting, Daniel Yee, AP (March 10, 2006).
Posted in Access on Monday May 11 2009 @ 6:53am
Courts try to make sure participants look their best -- or at least passable. Signage, flyers, and straight talk send out the message: No Shoes, No Shirt, No Trial.
Now Michigan's highest court will answer the question: can judges dictate how witnesses dress?
The case at hand involves a Muslim woman who refused to remove her veil for religious reasons vs. a judge who cites the confrontation clause. (Antigone, anyone?)
Michigan's large Muslim population makes this something more than a lone test case. See Michigan Supreme Court Considers Dress Rule, AP, Chicago Tribune (May 11, 2009).
Video Never Killed Anybody
Posted in Access on Monday February 09 2009 @ 8:09am
We're going to say: relax! Someone, somewhere, will play the O.J. card. The country started watching the O.J. event with the slow-chase and never let up. It was, by all definitions, notorious. Notorious trials have always been with us. The Scopes trial was immensely popular -- a century before Court TV was even a twinkle in anybody's eye. One might even guess that trials occurring before the TV age attracted even more attention -- they provided a form of infotainment not accessible by other means and captured the public's imagination in ways other events had not.
The critics of televised court proceedings are united. Even those who have less in common than Felix and Oscar are cozy as Kate and Allie. For example, it's rare for Justice Scalia and Simple Justice to agree on anything, but they are of one mind when it comes to opposing cameras in the courts.
There are rules in place. Witnesses and jurors can't be televised. Parties always have the option of moving for their very own version of TV turnoff week. If California -- with its swimming pools and movie stars -- can survive its Rule 980, so can the rest of the world.
See Florida Student Asks Scalia a Question -- and Gets Scolded, Tony Mauro, BLT (February 4, 2009).
Posted in Access on Monday January 26 2009 @ 10:56pm
Cameras in the courts -- what, if anything, would they change?
Cameras can be used to try to turn the tables; just ask the governor of Illinois. He wants cameras, but no trial. Every revolution is now televised. Recall Tonya Harding, Roseanne, and Bono all taping the paparazzi, back atchya. Just a week ago, one of the new first daughters caught her father's inauguration on a handheld device. Forget being in the moment, we've captured it for later.
In Minnesota, politics brought cameras to court, too. See Minn. Judges Allow Cameras in Court for Senate Battle, RCFP News Media Update (January 22, 2009). TV stars-turned-politicians are guaranteed to bring up the ratings!
Here in Ohio, court-o-rama is probably alone in watching Chief Justice Moyer and company on the Ohio Channel. Often broadcast in the wee hours, these are not for the tired or easily bored. The only thing close to a scandal we've seen thus far was a disciplinary hearing. It was handled with professionalism and civility by the bar, defense, and justices.
Who knows, soon insomniac New Yorkers may have a similar option. The new chief is known to favor cameras in the courts. See NY Chief Judge Nominee Backs Cameras in Courtrooms, Michael Virtanen, AP/Newsday (January 14, 2009).
What do cameras change?
- Access. Not everybody can come to court; court comes to everybody.
- Knowledge. We're always excited when some otherwise obscure procedure or little-known bit of legalese comes to light via a notorious case. If people need Britney to teach them about conservatorship, so be it.
- The rumor mill. When people don't know what's going on, they gossip for lack of better information.
- Haircuts. We heard that when Washington state courts first allowed cameras, the judges worried about their hair. Now that they're used to it, they worry less.
Are you ready?
What Not to Do: Deny Access
Posted in Access on Wednesday December 17 2008 @ 7:36am
Rules about courtroom decorum are often set by the judge. They may be informal or written down, strict or somewhat lax. A family or juvenile court may have different standards than a court of last resort. No matter what standard is set, the right to wear cultural and religious dress should be preserved.
Who made judges the arbiters of fashion? They get to wear those delightful robes. No question about what to wear each day! Yet, there should be some sense of seriousness and respect in the courtroom.
Sure, security risks abound. Baggy clothes, large winter coats, and head coverings could, in theory, hold weapons. So can pockets, briefcases, and tote bags. Where does it end?
It ends when access to the courts is threatened. In Douglasville, Georgia, a Muslim woman was held in contempt and jailed for not removing her hijab.
Use the magnometer at the entrance. Search pockets and bags. For the love of Pete, make peopel remove baseball caps. But allow people to express their religious views. A hijab is not disruptive, does not show disrespect to anyone, it is not a security risk any more than a nun's habit might be.
See Douglasville: Muslim's Scarf Leads to Arrest at Courthouse, Moni Basu, Atlanta Journal-Constitution (December 17, 2008), for the story about a modern-day Antigone.
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