Courts Respond to Media Request for Election-Challenge Access

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The Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts said it is trying to provide more electronic access to court proceedings, including by advising courts they may want to pause proceedings if they have technical difficulties with providing online access to those proceedings.

That came in a response from office director James Duff to a letter to news outlets and Fix the Court, which had sought a definitive answer from the office on whether and how it plans to provide access to election-related legal challenges in district and federal appeals courts.

The request came last week when there were more Trump-backed lawsuits still extant.

In his response dated Nov. 16, Duff pointed out that in March, due to COVID-19, the Judicial Conference had approved the use of teleconference technology to provide the public and media outlets with live audio of civil proceedings, and provide guidance on how to implement that temporary exception to the general prohibition on the use of that technology, including "how to establish high-volume audio connectivity in an effort to maximize remote public access to the anticipated increase in election-related proceedings."

The letter from Fix the Court and others stemmed from technical issues with access to the Texas court decision Nov. 2 rejecting a Trump campaign attempt to invalidate drive-in-dropbox ballots. The phone line set up to provide access to that hearing malfunctioned and dropped everyone, said the outlets in a letter to Duff Tuesday (Nov. 3), after which only some outlets were allowed to get back on, and even then the audio quality was so bad, compounded by the fact that the reporters' lines were not muted, that it made it "almost impossible to understand."

To that point, Duff said: "If technical difficulties arise during a proceeding that significantly interfere with public access, courts have been advised that they may wish to consider pausing the proceeding until access can be restored."

But the office has also been working to obviate the need for such delays.

Duff said it has been working with courts to identify future potential technical difficulties, expanding its outreach along those lines including by asking courts to notify the office before high-demand proceedings and discuss options and assistance.

As to streaming court proceedings, he pointed out that many federal appeals courts currently provide audio, but that "judiciary policy prohibits audio streaming broadcasting of district court proceedings."

He did note that the conference has approved a pilot program to test livestreamed audio of civil proceedings in district courts, but that won't begin until next year.

John Eggerton

Contributing editor John Eggerton has been an editor and/or writer on media regulation, legislation and policy for over four decades, including covering the FCC, FTC, Congress, the major media trade associations, and the federal courts. In addition to Multichannel News and Broadcasting + Cable, his work has appeared in Radio World, TV Technology, TV Fax, This Week in Consumer Electronics, Variety and the Encyclopedia Britannica.