By Crescenzo Vellucci
Vanguard Sacramento Bureau Chief
SAN FRANCISCO – THE VANGUARD – similar to consumer groups demanding remote access to the courts on a federal level – last week officially requested that the Superior Court of San Francisco County also open up its courtroom proceedings to the public via remote technology.
THE VANGUARD “requests to exercise its public right to be present during criminal proceedings that take place within the San Francisco Superior Court system…due to the C-19 outbreak, there is no public access to any Court civil or criminal proceeding (and) no protocol in place for my client and members of the public to attend Court proceedings remotely,” wrote Paul Nicholas Boylan, legal counsel for THE VANGUARD.
Boylan noted in his letter to Garrett L. Wong, Presiding Judge of the court, that his client is a news media outlet that reports on the courts and “advocates on behalf of the public in respect to the public’s right to access information.”
The daily online news group covers courts in San Francisco, Sacramento, Yolo and adjoining counties.
A team of reporters for THE VANGUARD, in fact, has been reporting on criminal proceedings in the superior courts of Sacramento and Yolo counties for weeks, where the courts use live streaming Zoom technology.
Preliminary hearings, bail hearings and arraignments are now being publicly calendared in Sacramento County, where four courtrooms have daily Zoom-aided sessions, with the judge, prosecutor and sometimes witnesses are not in the courtroom but appear using Zoom. The defendants and defense counsel usually appear in a courtroom remotely.
San Francisco County appears to not be using this technology, or is not making it available to the public and news media, wrote Boylan, adding that the technology is “inexpensive and easy to effectuate.”
Boylan said that while “accessible video feed would be ideal..due to the ease of setting up a system where members of the public could listen in on hearings allows you to remedy the problems associated with denying the public access to criminal proceedings, my client insists and the public (it) serves, be provided the means to remotely access Court criminal hearings as they are taking place.”
Boylan’s letter mirrors a request by more than two dozen open governments groups last week that called on Congress to fund real-time remote access to federal court proceedings, so COVID-19 does not limit the public’s right to know inside federal courtrooms.
The letter was signed by 26 groups, including the American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, Campaign for Accountability, Center for Media and Democracy, Demand Progress, Government Accountability Project, Public Citizen, Society of Professional Journalists and Taxpayers for Common Sense.
In the letter to the leaders of the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives. advocacy groups noted that “it is clear that much more is needed to protect the public’s access to information and strengthen meaningful oversight.”
The groups want Congress to promote court access because the pandemic has “severely impacted public access to court proceedings and records.” Most courts appear to have limited or even suspended public court operations – as the CA Superior Courts have done.
The groups are urging Congress to make it possible for the federal courts – as THE VANGUARD has requested of San Francisco County – to make courtroom actions visible to the public and press.
The letter also warned Congress that the pandemic has already greatly slowed processing of Freedom of Information Act requests. It asks for funding to allow government to respond quicker to FOIA requests.
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