Florida Supreme Court to air hearings on Facebook Live

3:53 p.m Tuesday, Jan. 23, 2018 Politics
The Florida Supreme Court in Tallahassee. (Scott Keeler/Tampa Bay Times via AP)

In a decision praised by those who believe transparency could help unlock the mysteries of the judicial system, the Florida Supreme Court on Tuesday announced it will become one of the first courts in the world to air its proceedings on social media.

Beginning in February, all arguments before the state’s highest court will be shown on Facebook Live, said Chief Justice Jorge Labarga, a former Palm Beach County circuit judge. While arguments can already be viewed online through the court’s website, airing its proceedings on Facebook will make them easily accessible to the social media platform’s 2 billion users, he said.

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Palm Beach Post Staff Writer
Florida Supreme Court Chief Justice Jorge Labarga

“In the 1970s, Florida became the first state to allow broadcasts of its court cases at a time when every other court in the nation refused it,” Labarga said. “This court’s experiment with transparency showed everyone a better way to balance First Amendment rights against the rights of people involved in a trial or appeal. Social media will be our next step in moving this highly successful model of openness into the 21st Century.”

The first Facebook-fueled look-see of the court’s august chambers in Tallahassee will occur on Thursday. The court plans to use the online video link to air the annual Florida Bar Pro Bono Awards honoring lawyers who have donated legal services to those who can’t afford it. Two weeks later, on Feb. 5, the first oral arguments will be shown on Facebook Live.

Rachael Jones, a research fellow at the Center for Media Law and Policy at the University of North Carolina, applauded the court’s decision.

“Of all the branches of government, the judiciary has the most mystery surrounding it,” said Jones, a University of Florida law school graduate. “I’m sure we will see an uptick of Floridians watching and getting an insight into what goes on in Tallahassee.”

Stacey Steinberg, a law professor at the University of Florida, agreed. “It will make the courts more accessible by creating a new way for the public to get involved,” she said. Getting the chance to see the give and take between lawyers and justices could promote understanding of how legal decisions are made, she said.

While people have been allowed to view the court online for several years, the system is clunky, both agreed. People have to know to go to the court’s website and then figure out how to watch. Social media will make watching the court as easy as clicking on the court’s Facebook page.

The Florida Supreme Court is now going to be accessible on my smart phone,” Jones said.

But she said it will interesting to see how the high court deals with some of the quirks of the platform. Facebook Live allows those watching to post comments about the proceedings.

“We’re going to see how that goes,” said Craig Waters, a spokesman for the court. Posts will be allowed unless they’re obscene or otherwise inappropriate, he said.

Cameras have been routinely allowed in state courtrooms — with restrictions on the number allowed — since the late 1970s. It became official after justices in a landmark 1979 decision rejected claims that cameras would disrupt the proceedings, cause lawyers to grandstand and make witnesses reluctant to testify.

In 1997, the Supreme Court, in cooperation with Florida State University, put video cameras in the courtroom and made the feeds available by satellite, over the cable network The Florida Channel and, eventually, on the internet, Labarga said.

While defendants can petition judges to exclude cameras, it rarely happens, according to a 2012 article written by attorneys Dana J. McElroy and Allison S. Lovelady.

Still, controversy remains.

The U.S. Supreme Court has yet to embrace cameras of any kind. People are prohibited from bringing cell phones into federal courthouses, largely because of worry that they may use them to take pictures.

There have been pilot projects in some federal courts around the country, including in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida, to test the impact video cameras would have in civil proceedings. The pilot program allowed people an inside look when a federal judge in Washington last year heard legal arguments about President Donald Trump’s travel ban. While the videos are available online, the use of video cameras is unusual.

In a 2013 law review article, a professor at the Chicago-Kent College of Law said there is good reason for caution. The presence of cameras in the courtroom could alter the dynamics of the proceedings, denying people the right to a fair trial, wrote Nancy Marder.

Before bringing cameras into the courtroom, she urged the federal judiciary to take baby steps by posting transcripts and audiotapes of the proceedings.

“Any change in the courtroom should be undertaken only with great care and much deliberation because every change has the potential to interfere with a court’s main function, which is to do justice,” she wrote.

But Labarga said he is confident the use of social media will enhance the public’s understanding of the court system. He recalled how the world tuned in to watch in 2000 when the Florida Supreme Court debated how to resolve the state’s election meltdown in the presidential contest between George W. Bush and Al Gore.

“Over time court staff believes that Facebook Live … will eclipse the reach of other broadcast methods now being used,” according to the release.