Court transparency advocates across the country have joined forces with Grammy-winning musician Fiona Apple to launch what they say is the next frontier of criminal justice accountability: a National Courtwatch Network.
The campaign launched this week also features an award-winning short film called “The Court Watchers,” narrated by actor Jesse Williams, with an original musical score from Apple, one of the national network’s highest-profile volunteers. Apple, who lives in California, has been observing court proceedings in Prince George’s County, Md., for two years with Courtwatch PG — the largest virtual court watch program in the nation — which she has been able to do because bail-review hearings there have been conducted by Zoom since the onset of the pandemic.
The goal of the campaign and short film, organizers say, is to spark a transparency movement that inspires people around the country to build upon the fight for police accountability by scrutinizing the “assembly line of injustice” playing out in America’s courtrooms.
Once jailed, these women now hold courts accountable — with help from students, retirees and Fiona Apple
“We increasingly today are able to see really intense examples of state brutality and state violence in the streets because of iPhone footage, but the state violence that happens every day inside of courts is blocked by legalese, and inside of prisons and jails it’s blocked by literal prison walls,” said Scott Hechinger, co-founder of the advocacy group Zealous, which partners with community organizers and helped launch the national network. “Courtwatch is a way to actually allow folks to observe, not necessarily to record or show iPhone footage, but to be able to actually talk about what they’re seeing in court.”
The Courtwatch motto, splashed across the national network’s website, is that “injustice happens in empty courtrooms.”
To fight that, volunteers sit in on daily bail-review hearings and other court proceedings, then document what they see through note-taking and data collection, with the intent of holding prosecutors, police, judges, jailers and defense attorneys accountable. Some organizations do that through formal committees, writing accountability letters to officials and lawmakers and even crafting legislation to correct the problems they witness.
In some places where Courtwatch programs exist, including in Maryland, observations of volunteers have inspired federal lawsuits alleging serious, systemic civil rights violations.
Washington Post Live: A conversation on court transparency with musician Fiona Apple and Courtwatch PG Director Carmen Johnson
“In the scheme of justice issues, people don’t tend to think about going to court and court access as this key racial and social justice imperative,” said Hechinger, who worked as a public defender in New York City before creating Zealous.
But courtroom accountability, he said, is a continuation of police accountability.
“With more transparency and accountability comes more justice,” Hechinger said.
The concept of court watching is not new, but was formalized by community organizers in New Orleans in the 2000s after Hurricane Katrina destroyed much of the city and threw the system into disarray. Since then, Courtwatch programs have cropped up in dozens of communities, including Los Angeles, Chicago, Baltimore, New York City, Pittsburgh, Prince George’s County and Washington.
For years, those independent teams operated in silos with no formal nationwide structure. Then the pandemic hit in 2020, transforming the way court observers did their work. Courtrooms nationwide halted in-person proceedings to protect public safety and instead started holding remote hearings using video software like Zoom. Because the Constitution mandates public access to America’s courtrooms, judges were forced to let the public into those virtual spaces, too.
For the first time, family members who might not have otherwise been able to attend the hearing of a loved one because of work, child-care or transportation hurdles were now able to observe virtually. Law students could pop into hearings from home to learn the ways of the court. Lawmakers responsible for judicial oversight could better carry out that duty.
And for Courtwatch programs, virtual access meant the organization’s volunteer base could rapidly expand, inviting retirees, high school students, working professionals and people who don’t live locally. For Courtwatch PG, that meant the recruitment of Apple, who has never set foot in Prince George’s County but is one of the program’s most dedicated volunteers.
Apple learned about Courtwatch PG after helping with Gasping for Justice, a campaign that highlighted accounts of people inside the Prince George’s County jail as coronavirus rapidly spread. One of the campaign’s calls to action: join the Courtwatch PG ranks.
In early 2021, Apple signed up.
She and Courtwatch PG Director Carmen Johnson, who co-founded the organization, became fast friends. Johnson, who was formerly incarcerated, tells her volunteers that she thinks she would not have gone to prison had there been court watchers observing her case. Apple often shares that she was inspired to join Courtwatch PG in part because she had her own run-in with the law while touring in Texas years ago. She could have gone to prison on marijuana possession charges, she says, if not for the advocacy of a good friend and the grace of an empathetic judge.
“It was drugs, it was hash. I wasn’t violent,” Apple said in an interview. “But I could have gone away for 10 years, you know? And that’s happening to people all of the frickin’ time. It’s happening to people every day. For less.”
Courtwatch PG — which began with Life After Release founder Qiana Johnson and her first volunteer, Carmen Johnson — quickly expanded, with hundreds of new volunteers and partnerships with law schools across the region.
But as a potential return to in-person proceedings loomed, Johnson and her team began to fear that virtual court access would be revoked and volunteers would disappear. They wanted to know how other court watching organizations nationally were handling the same challenge.
So with the encouragement of her boss, Carmen Johnson began assembling a list of other court watching programs, mostly through Google and word of mouth. Soon, the groups were meeting once a month to trade notes, share resources and collaborate on issues affecting them all: courtroom access challenges; deaths and medical issues in the jails; state and federal legislation.
Eventually, Hechinger’s team at Zealous pitched the idea to formalize that grass-roots network with an official campaign that could “breathe life into the constitutional guarantee of public access to courts for accountability sake and drive people to take action,” he said. They came up with the short film concept to be produced like a comic book, with the court watchers as the heroes of the story. It would feature Johnson’s successful expansion of Courtwatch PG. Williams, the actor, would narrate. Apple volunteered to write an original score.
Apple warns fans that the score, which is her first, isn’t meant to be a “masterpiece,” but instead an unobtrusive backdrop to a story she cares about.
“When I was playing to the Carmen part, I was just really feeling my love for her and her story,” Apple said. “So I did put my heart into it.”
Notoriously private and consistently uncomfortable with singling herself out among her fellow volunteers, Apple said that she offered to contribute her music in the hope it might draw people into the work. She has stepped into the public eye several other times to advocate for court transparency, including the day she won a Grammy for her “Fetch the Bolt Cutters” album, and last winter, when Courtwatch PG was pushing for legislation at the Maryland State House that would make virtual access to court proceedings a legal mandate.
Apple’s legislative lesson got the attention of actress Jamie Lee Curtis, who called state lawmakers to voice her support for the bill.
This is a first. A grammy award winner is hyping one of my bills (HB 647)! Fiona Apple is asking Maryland to pass legislation to keep Zoom access to view court proceedings, fast as you can 👇 https://t.co/ve2gbkFJHr— David Moon (@DavidMoon2014) March 17, 2022
Another first. A Golden Globe winner supporting my bill HB 647! Apparently @jamieleecurtis joins Fiona Apple in wanting courts to let the public watch public proceedings via Zoom. The Maryland House Judiciary Committee got a voicemail 👇 https://t.co/DOLyrV76h1 pic.twitter.com/jDLuR8hpl4— David Moon (@DavidMoon2014) March 18, 2022
This year, Courtwatch PG is again pushing for the legislation — and the national network’s organizers have made their political fight central to this week’s launch effort. The bill, which had a hearing before lawmakers last month, would safeguard the audiovisual remote access allowed by Maryland courts during the coronavirus pandemic and ensure that the right is upheld in all criminal and civil proceedings statewide unless otherwise exempted by law.
“If that legislation passes,” Hechinger said, “it would be the first in the entire country and would establish Maryland as a leader in this constitutional obligation, and as a leader in transparency and accountability.”
The main opposition the legislation faces is from judges and prosecutors in Maryland, who have argued that broad remote access to court could lead to witness or victim intimidation. But Johnson and other transparency advocates have rebutted those claims, citing existing rules that already empower judges to limit courtroom access for safety reasons — an option that would extend to virtual access.
“The difference between last year and this year is more people are talking about transparency and accountability,” Johnson said. “We have a constitutional right to see what’s happening in the courtrooms. And again, like I always say, we’re not in 1723, we’re in 2023. The technology is there.”
That remote access to the courtroom, Apple said, has allowed her to be “neighbors” with people on the other end of the country — and empowered her to participate in the courts in ways she can’t in Los Angeles, where she lives, because of a limitation on virtual options.
She said she plans to be a Courtwatch volunteer “as long as I possibly can for the rest of my life.”
“Court watching is really the gateway to a better community, a better world, because it will make you care,” Apple said. “It makes you care about people you don’t know. And we need more of that. We really need more of that.”
On Thursday, Feb. 16, at 2 p.m. Eastern time, join Courtwatch PG Director Carmen Johnson and Grammy-winning artist Fiona Apple, a volunteer court observer in Prince George’s County, Md., to discuss their push for more transparency and accountability in courtrooms nationwide. Criminal justice reporter Katie Mettler will moderate. Register for the program here.