Singer, ‘courtwatcher’ Fiona Apple champions Md. bill to cement online access to courtrooms

During the pandemic, many in-person experiences turned virtual, including court hearings. And now that most courtrooms have the technology in place that allowed the public to see justice unfold, some Maryland lawmakers think it should remain accessible online.

A Maryland bill would give “courtwatchers” — such as singer Fiona Apple, who keeps up with Prince George’s County courts — continued access to public court proceedings in what the Grammy Award winning artist in a statement said is “a constitutional right to open and public courts.”

Just before her son’s hearing in Prince George’s County court two years ago, Bianca Mills got word their relatives couldn’t make it.

“They got COVID and they were unable to attend court for him,” she testified to the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee on Senate Bill 43.

“And so therefore 67 family members were able to, all at once, be on the Zoom … and support my son and I really truly feel that it made a difference in his outcome,” Mills said.

Maryland lawmakers in both the house and senate are introducing bills to require each appellate court, circuit court, and District Court to provide remote audiovisual access online, allowing judges to opt out of streaming for certain cases. Those involved in the case would still have to appear in person. Both bills are in committee.

The issue got extra attention on social media when singer-songwriter Fiona Apple, who participates in the Courtwatch PG volunteer program in Prince George’s County, testified remotely. Watch her testimony below:

Apple, who does not reside in Maryland, said in the video that she has been “courtwatching” for two years in Prince George’s County, and she is honored to have ties to this community.

“If I could watch virtually where I live, I would. But I’m glad that I’ve been a courtwatcher for (Prince George’s) County because it has taught me that community can stretch far across state lines and that being a good neighbor is possible even if you don’t live right next door.”

Courtwatch PG volunteers observe bail hearing in the county to document the county’s “policies in action and to hold judicial actors accountable for injustice in the court system,” according to its website.

“Courtwatcher” Odessa Wilson, who lives in Virginia but keeps an eye on bail and bonds hearings remotely, testified to the equity and accountability that public online access provides.

“Continuing the allowance of remote access to hearings will ensure that more people have the ability to observe the way the justice system works. This will lead to an overall more fair and impartial justice system in the future,” Wilson said.

Those who oppose the bill question whether it would compromise the defendant’s rights to make their hearings open to the public, not just their community, among other concerns.

Megan Cloherty

WTOP Investigative Reporter Megan Cloherty primarily covers breaking news, crime and courts.

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