How to turn regular Marylanders into accountability watchdogs
“Fiona Apple, don’t be mad at me, all right?” state Sen. William C. Smith Jr. said with a laugh as he called a vote on SB043, a bill that would have given the Maryland public access to court proceedings via live audio and video streaming.
The bill failed this session despite having the support of the Prince George’s County Council, open government advocates, Howard University law students, and high profile individuals like Judge Joe Brown and, as Sen. Smith mentioned, Fiona Apple.
But Common Cause Maryland and Courtwatch PG will not give up on trying to make our courts more accessible and transparent. The right to open and public court is enshrined in our constitution, but modern-day challenges like the availability and cost of transportation, taking time off work, and securing childcare have limited our collective ability to exercise this right. The legislation that our lawmakers voted against this session would have helped to enhance this right, and give Marylanders the power to securely watch the courts from their living rooms, cars, and dorm rooms.
Since its founding in 2019, Courtwatch PG has turned over 300 residents of Maryland, including law students, into champions for transparency and accountability. Using the remote access afforded to the public during the pandemic, Courtwatch PG has trained and deployed court watchers to over 5,600 court hearings, and assisted in the creation of court watching organizations across the country. Court watching volunteers attend court proceedings and keep watch for violations of constitutional rights, state and county laws, statutes and codes.
Court Watch PG has sent over 416 accountability letters to judges, jails, prosecutors and police, flagging concerns about misconduct, detainment conditions and lawyer communications. Via remote access, court watchers have prevented Marylanders from being kept in jail due to an unreasonable bond, being denied their medications, or ending up back in jail as a result of the complications of homelessness.
Their efforts have been so impactful that Court Watch PG is now helping to launch the National Courtwatch Collective, a collaborative project that aims to bring together the many independent court watching organizations across the country. Though these groups exist from Los Angeles to New York City, no other state in the country has moved to establish permanent remote court access.
The Court Remote Public Access bill would have given Maryland the opportunity to be a leader in government transparency nationwide. The flexibility provided by remote access helps to improve community relations and increase participation. At Common Cause Maryland, we deal directly with the protection of civil rights, and we deeply understand the importance of transparency. More than that, we understand the value of community engagement: you can’t put a price on public trust. Our lawmakers missed a tremendous opportunity this session when they voted no on this bill.
But this isn’t the end of the road for this legislation, and we will continue to advocate for more open and accessible courts. If you’d like to be a watchdog for your community, visit courtwatch.org. To tell your lawmakers that you support remote access, click here.