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SJC acknowledges 21st century

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There are still courthouses around Massachusetts where index card files reign over computer files and you still have to go to clerks’ offices to get civil and criminal case documents because the state’s Trial Court website still does not post anything online except the barest of updates.

But yesterday, the Supreme Judicial Court struck a blow for progress intertwined with centuries of First Amendment decisions when it ruled the OpenCourt experiment in Quincy District Court, which streams court proceedings live and archives them for later access, could not be shut down over concerns minors could be identified.

“We conclude that any order restricting OpenCourt's ability to publish -- by ‘streaming live’ over the Internet, publicly archiving on the Web site or otherwise -- existing audio and video recordings of court room proceedings represents a form of prior restraint on the freedoms of the press and speech,” Justice Margot Botsford writes in the unanimous opinion.

OpenCourt is a pilot program by WBUR radio in conjunction with the Quincy District Court that was funded by a Knight Challenge grant. The idea is to livestream court proceedings that are open to the public as well as set up in-court Wi-FI for reporters covering the courts. The judge has the discretion to turn off the cameras from the bench to protect witnesses and victims as he or she deems necessary.

But the program ran into a problem last year when former state senator Michael Morrissey became Norfolk District Attorney and filed suit to prevent the project from archiving clips over fears that minors and other victims would be identified. Morrissey used the case of a man who was facing charges of kidnapping and forcing a 15-year-old girl into prostitution. There was a separate suit trying to shut down the operation by a man accused of rape who claimed the livestreaming would impair his ability to get a fair trial. The court dismissed both challenges.

While the SJC ruling says any attempt to prevent both the livestreaming and archiving would amount to that judicial no-no known as prior restraint, it ordered OpenCourt to redact identifying information about protected victims and witnesses from its archive, a process that WBUR already undertakes. The ruling also instructs the court’s Judiciary-Media Committee, made up of judges and editors around the state, to see if further guidelines are in order.

Interestingly, the ruling comes in the midst of Sunshine Week, the media’s annual effort to spotlight the need for transparency in government.

The decision is the most recent acknowledgment by the state’s highest court that times have changed and the court system is slowly, sometimes grudgingly, going along. The SJC earlier this month amended its rules governing media coverage of the courts by allowing reporters to use their laptops during proceedings as well as “other electronic communication devices inside courtrooms if they are not disruptive to the proceedings.” The court also expanded the definition of who the media is by allowing “citizen journalists” – commonly known as bloggers – to bring in their video cameras and other devices as well.

Heady changes for the western hemisphere’s oldest court system, whose inner workings can seem mired in the past, its forward-looking judicial outlook notwithstanding.  

                                                                                                                                       --JACK SULLIVAN



BEACON HILL

The Weld-Cellucci ticket is back, as former governor Bill Weld plans to be in Boston today for a fundraiser for ALS medical research being organized by his one-time lieutenant governor, Paul Cellucci, who is suffering from the fatal degenerative neurological illness, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease.

Some lawmakers are queasy about passing legislation offering sick days to workers in a down economy, the Lowell Sun reports. The newspaper, in an editorial, supports the idea.

State Rep. Eugene O’Flaherty, chairman of the Legislature’s Judiciary Committee, predicted the new version of the “three strikes” law will pass despite opposition, including from Gov. Deval Patrick.

MUNICIPAL MATTERS

Norwell voters will be asked to approve a $2.9 million override to cover a budget gap and hire new teachers.

The Back Bay power outage continued yesterday in Boston, with NStar bringing in hundreds of workers to try to get electricity restored following a substation fire on Tuesday.

In the wake of racial incidents at school sporting events, The Berkshire Eagle says that the region needs to tackle issues of diversity and learn to accept the presence of African Americans and other minorities.

CASINOS

Foxborough, whose board of selectmen voted in December to oppose a casino there, will consider whether to study the potential impacts of a casino.

NATIONAL POLITICS/WASHINGTON

The National Review compares the US Catholic bishops’ anti-contraception coverage stance to the church’s resistance to the Communist occupation of Poland 60 years ago even though the prelate’s latest opposition statement doesn’t quite go that far.

In the Weekly Standard, Geoffrey Norman says those who absolve President Obama of complicity in rising gas prices have selective memory. “If that is the case. . ., then why did Obama make gas prices an issue when he was running against George W. Bush?,” Norman writes. Bush? Forget it, he’s on a roll.

Gail Collins sizes up Congress and wonders “whether to applaud whenever our elected representatives manage to accomplish anything whatsoever. The bar is getting pretty low.”

ELECTION 2012

Mitt Romney may not charm, but the former Bain Capital honcho knows to count, and the math is still way in his favor, writes the Globe’s Matt Viser, channelling the Romney campaign meme. And never mind Mississippi and Alabama -- Romney cleaned up in Saipan. Romney flies to New York to reassure his big-money donors, of which he has several, that the wheels are still attached to his bus. Meanwhile, Seamus lives: The late Irish setter is the new mascot for Romney critics.

Keller@Large says Rick Santorum’s wins are good for the democratic -- small “d” -- process. Santorum swaggers just about as hard as a guy in a sweater vest can. Newt Gingrich looks forward to losing in Illinois.

Karl Rove looks at President Obama’s fundraising woes, rubs his hands together, and lets out a diabolical laugh.

Joe Battenfeld rounds up worries about Elizabeth Warren and notes that six months before Election Day is a little early to begin eating your own, even for Bay State Democrats.

BUSINESS/ECONOMY

A departing Goldman Sachs executive’s op-ed in the New York Times sends the company’s stock plunging by $2 billion, Bloomberg reports. Here’s a Times story about what a big deal that Times op-ed was. Goldman plays damage control.

A report by The Boston Foundation warns that growing economic inequality remains the greatest threat to the region’s long-term prosperity, WBUR’s Radio Boston reports.

The Republican argues that the Bay State needs to do something about the east-west divide that leaves places like Springfield in the lurch, especially when it comes to jobs.

Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac are getting more aggressive about getting reimbursed for the awful loans they bought during the housing boom.

EDUCATION

Bridgewater and Raynham parents are pushing for full all-day kindergarten in the school district.

TRANSPORTATION

T chief Richard Davey says customers have spoken: They prefer fare increases to service cuts, WBUR reports.

The US Senate passes highway and transit bills, Governing reports.

Fall River Mayor Will Flanagan wants to bring ferry service between his city and Block Island, with trial runs expected to start in June.

Framingham and Ashland want to establish quiet zones to spare residents the noise from train whistles.

CRIMINAL JUSTICE

Catherine Greig, the girlfriend of mobster Whitey Bulger, pleaded guilty yesterday to charges that she helped him elude arrest for 16 years. She’ll be sentenced in June. US Attorney Carmen Ortiz insists that Greig’s plea deal wasn’t the result of cooperation from Bulger, and says she will be seeking a “significant” sentence. Ortiz also says she will still be able to call Greig to testify against Bulger.

A graphic designer who worked for the Lawrence schools testifies he did non-school jobs for former Superintendent Wilfredo Laboy, the Eagle-Tribune reports.

1 Article Comments
Recent Comments

rob.goodspeed

Says on 3/15/2012 10:43 PM
While I agree the SJC ruling is positive, it is only vaguely related to the issue raised by the lede - government information systems. In my opinion, implementing computer systems that work well for both administrative and transparency purposes is much more difficult -- and more important -- than a video archive alone.
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