Mecklenburg Co. courts improving virtual court access after public shut out of hearing

Updated: May. 14, 2020 at 10:20 PM EDT
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CHARLOTTE, N.C. (WBTV) – The Mecklenburg County courts took steps to increase public access to virtual court hearings Thursday, after questions from WBTV.

Questions arose after multiple media outlets were shut out of a hearing held in Mecklenburg County Superior Court on Tuesday in a matter involving a hotel seeking to have guests removed from the property.

The county’s courts began hearing civil cases using WebEx meeting technology on April 27.

To date, those hearings have operated out of view of the public. A court spokeswoman said on Thursday that her office had received no requests to attend virtual hearings other than from three media outlets who asked to attend the hearing about hotel residents; requests that were denied.

The lack of requests could stem from the fact that the public didn’t have any information about how to access the hearing. Court calendars for the virtual hearings did not state the public could attend the hearing and did not include any information about who to contact to access the virtual proceedings.

By contrast, Wake County’s courts have posted public court calendars listing virtual hearings with a person listed at the top that the public can contact to gain access to a virtual hearing.

Publicizing court hearings, facilitating access key to transparency

Lin Weeks, an attorney with the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press said making sure the public can access virtual court proceedings is key to maintaining transparency.

Weeks has been tracking court access issues across the country during the pandemic. He said many court jurisdictions are providing real-time access to virtual hearings held by phone or video or, alternatively, are posting recordings of the proceedings shortly after they happen.

“For the press and public to have meaningful access to judicial proceedings, they need to know when those proceedings are taking place and they need to know how to access them,” Weeks said.

Although Weeks acknowledged the pandemic has raised many challenging issues, he said it is important for court officials to ensure the public can access their proceedings, if they are going to hold them virtually.

North Carolina law requires court proceedings to be open to the public except for in very specific, and rare, circumstances.

“To the point where the court is able to use technology to hold remote proceedings, I think they also should be able to use that same technology to provide public access to those proceedings,” Weeks said.

A spokeswoman for Mecklenburg County’s courts refused to make either Trial Court Administrator Charleston Carter or Senior Resident District Court Judge Bob Bell available to answer questions about the lack of transparency surrounding the court’s virtual proceedings.

An administrative order authorizing the virtual hearings entered on April 16 included the name of a court staffer for the public to contact if they wanted to access attend a hearing but that information is not posted anywhere else.

Jessica Davis, the court spokeswoman, said her office would add that contact information to its website on Thursday afternoon, after repeated inquiries from WBTV.

“There is a process in place for the public to access hearings; however, ascertaining that information (to date) has been inconspicuous,” Davis said in an email. “I am currently working with our webmaster to include contact information at the top of the page on the NC Courts website where the calendars are located.”

Media shut out of hearing

On Tuesday, a virtual hearing was held in a case where the owners of a Days Inn hotel are seeking permission from a judge to close and force the residents currently living there to leave.

There is currently a ban on evictions in North Carolina through the end of May.

The situation at the hotel has attracted media attention from outlets across the city. According to Davis, three outlets requested access to Tuesday’s hearing.

A calendar announcing the hearing was not posted anywhere on the court’s website.

And, minutes before the hearing was scheduled to take place, Davis told at least two outlets she was speaking with the Judge Casey Viser, who was presiding over the hearing, and did “not think he is going to approve.”

Davis this followed up to say that she would attend the hearing and take notes in place of the media. She later sent those notes out.

But text messages provided by Viser to WBTV show he told Davis the media was allowed to attend the hearing and, in fact, had sent Davis the login information for media to attend the hearing.

Davis said her failure to provide the login information to reporters was due to a miscommunication.

She said the virtual hearing was not noticed on the public court calendar because the hearing had not been scheduled through the Trial Court Administrator’s office.

“We are working to ensure that all parties are aware of, and adhere to, the process that is in place as outlined in the April 16, 2020 Administrative Order,” Davis said.

In an email to WBTV, Viser said the miscommunication is just one example of the many glitches and hurdles judges have had to overcome in recent weeks as they move to conducting the court’s business virtually, which he called “not at all ideal”.

“We are all in unchartered territory here, during an unprecedented crisis, and I know that those of us in the Court system—from the skilled and diligent people at the Administrative Office of the Courts who have enabled the Webex “virtual hearing” platform (and are providing perhaps thousands of personnel with the necessary training), to the clerks and coordinators doing their very best to operate at a greatly reduced capacity (and mostly remotely), to the Judges—all of us are doing our best to adapt to the situation and ensure that the courts are as open as possible under the conditions that the State is facing,” Viser said.

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