The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Court watchers, with Fiona Apple’s help, are fighting to keep virtual access beyond the pandemic

Qiana Johnson, left, and Carmen Johnson manage Court Watch PG and its parent organization, Life After Release, in Prince George's County in Maryland. (Marvin Joseph, Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)

Before the pandemic shut down courthouses across Maryland, Carmen Johnson was one of the only members of Court Watch PG to sit in on bail bond hearings every day of the week.

Johnson, 55, would drive to the Prince George’s County Courthouse, slide into the hard benches of courtroom 261 and take notes for hours as dozens of people cycled through. Her job, usually alone, was to bear witness — to try to hold the court accountable.

Then in March 2020, the coronavirus pushed courts in Maryland online, a decision by the judiciary that kept the public safe while ensuring its constitutional right to court access. With that increased accessibility came an influx of hundreds of new Court Watch PG volunteers who could suddenly help observe proceedings through remote video or their phones across the region and nation: law students, high-schoolers, retirees and even Grammy-winning musician Fiona Apple.

Now, as the world eases back to its old ways, those observers fear their virtual access will be cut off — and they are scrambling to persuade lawmakers at the Maryland State House to cement court transparency into law.

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Their push comes as other court-watching groups and transparency advocates across the country are vying for similar permanent virtual access. Officials at the state and federal level are weighing the cost of technologically upgrading America’s courthouses — and the ethics of continuing remote observation and, in some places, participation in virtual court proceedings.

Ahead of this year’s state legislative session, Court Watch PG and other advocates for courtroom transparency, with help from Georgetown University Law Center attorneys, crafted a proposed law that would mandate remote public access in every courthouse in Maryland. They found sponsors in both chambers and testified alongside press freedom advocates before the judiciary committees earlier this year.

“Virtual access to the courts is one of the best things this pandemic has left us with,” Qiana Johnson, founder of Court Watch PG and its parent organization, Life After Release, said during public testimony.

“This access for the public is emphatically needed, not wanted,” Carmen Johnson, now director of Court Watch PG, told lawmakers.

But they’ve been waiting for movement on their bill ever since.

They are trying to shore up votes before Monday, known as “crossover day,” when legislation must pass out of at least one chamber to have a reasonable shot at becoming law.

The Court Watch PG team has spent the past week putting its energy behind a final push — including deploying Apple, its most visible and vocal advocate, in a call-to-action video posted to social media Wednesday.

“Hello,” Apple says in the opening frame of the video, speaking in the soft marketing tone of an Instagram influencer. “I’ve come here today to tell you about my new makeup line.”

Then she does a hard pivot.

“Yeah,” she says. “I’m ... kidding. I’m here to ask you to do something again. I have no shame.”

Standing before a chalkboard with the phone numbers for states Sens. William C. Smith Jr. (D-Montgomery County) and Luke H. Clippinger (D-Baltimore City), and the chairs of the judiciary committees, Apple pleads with viewers to call the lawmakers with a message of support.

Apple, who lives in California, began court-watching in Prince George’s County after she and other celebrities participated in the “Gasping for Justice” campaign in 2020 to support a lawsuit filed by incarcerated people trying to improve conditions at the county jail during a coronavirus outbreak.

During the Grammys last year, Apple recorded a different social media video in which she acknowledged the concerns about voting transparency for the awards — then went on to say the more important conversation was around transparency in the courts.

“That still matters,” she said in her video this week. “A year later, I am still a court watcher. And now we actually have legislation written, but we need it to be brought to the floor for a vote.”

In the more recent video, Apple admits she has phone-calling phobia, but even she made calls to Smith and Clippinger.

“That’s all I have to ask of you right now,” she concludes. “Please do it. I love you.”

Apple’s video, coupled with other grass-roots mobilization efforts, might be pushing the remote access bill back into the spotlight. Del. David Moon (D-Montgomery County) — vice chairman of the judiciary committee and the sponsor of the bill in the House of Delegates — said the attention from advocates has renewed discussion among his fellow lawmakers.

Civil rights organizations and the state public defender’s office have sent in letters of endorsement for courtroom transparency.

On Thursday night, the House judiciary committee received a voice mail from Jamie Lee Curtis.

Throughout the pandemic, Moon said government at all levels had to adapt — at the legislature, city councils, school boards and courts. Continuing that increased access, he said, is “a matter of convenience and customer service these days.”

Parents have been better able to participate because they don’t have to find child care. People without access to a car have been able to support a loved one in court without spending hours and money on public transportation. Those with disabilities or mobility challenges have been empowered to be a part of the process from the safety of home.

Their greatest hurdle for passing the bill, Moon said, is the annual cost — an estimated $2.5 million — associated with retrofitting all Maryland courthouses for audio and visual access.

“I think it’s the kind of cost government should be willing to incur,” Moon said.

Nobody gave oral testimony against the bill, though the Maryland Association of Counties said it was concerned its members would end up shouldering the financial burden and offered its support with a friendly amendment on funding.

Chief Judge of the Maryland Court of Appeals Joseph M. Getty did, however, write a memo to lawmakers opposing the bill’s passage. The court, he said, was concerned the legislation would violate separation of powers.

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Getty also highlighted the technological cost and concern that the bill, which grants remote access only to proceedings already deemed public by the court, does not clearly outline what authority judges have to close a hearing at their discretion. The bill empowers any attorney, defendant or party to ask a judge to restrict access to any proceeding for safety or privacy reasons.

In response to questions from The Washington Post about its own plan for the future of remote access, a spokesperson for the judiciary said Getty recently created a joint subcommittee on post-pandemic judicial operations — a group tasked with determining which “innovations, technology and changes” will be implemented moving forward.

Right now, each courthouse in the state has discretion over its own remote access policies, creating inconsistency that advocates say is detrimental to both the public and court participants. The judiciary has the power to grant permanent virtual access to the public in all Maryland courtrooms without the legislature’s involvement.

“There are many ways to the same result,” Moon said. “The bill is trying to guarantee that result.”

Clippinger and Smith did not respond to an interview request from The Post.

“Any argument against this is just basically saying, we don’t want you to see what is happening in your name,” said Greg McKelvey, the campaign specialist from advocacy organization Zealous, which has helped Court Watch PG with its efforts. “Our last remaining vestige of this idea that you need to be in person to view what is happening in your name is courtrooms.”

During their public testimony, Court Watch PG volunteers outlined the tangible benefit their remote access has brought to court proceedings in Prince George’s in the past two years.

Josh Rosenberg, a college student at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, said he started court-watching as a high school student and has been able to continue because of virtual access — witnessing hundreds of bond hearings in Prince George’s without ever stepping foot in the courthouse. The volunteers, Rosenberg said, have written more than 250 accountability letters to prosecutors, judges, lawmakers and jail officials.

“We have a judiciary in many, many states, not just here in Maryland, but all over the country, that fail in this department of transparency, accountability and the egregious acts they commit to communities, usually of color, every day,” Edwuan Whitehead, assistant director of Court Watch PG, said during testimony.

For some of the court watchers, that transparency is personal.

Carmen Johnson, who is formerly incarcerated and believes she was wrongfully convicted, told lawmakers that when she went to trial in 2015, her courtroom was empty.

“Injustice,” she said, “only happens in empty courtrooms.”