CHARLOTTE, N.C. (WBTV) - When a judge ordered the release of police video last Friday of Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department officers firing tear gas on protesters from both sides of the street, he did so in a court hearing that had not been noticed to the public.
The hearing, which was held in response to a petition from CMPD filed on June 16, was part of what court officials call the ‘add-on calendar’ in Mecklenburg County Superior Court.
Although lawyers arguing the case may know about a matter being included as part of an ‘add-on calendar,’ court officials do not update the dockets posted on the court website or take any other steps to alert the public that a hearing will be held, even in cases with great public interest, like the one heard last Friday.
The court system posts court calendars on its website but do not update them as more cases are added on.
“It’s hard to imagine a scenario with great public interest than this case,” Lin Weeks, an attorney with the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press told WBTV.
Weeks has tracked court access issues during the COVID-19 pandemic. He previously spoke with WBTV after the media was shut out of a virtual hearing that was not published on any publicly available court calendar.
“It’s just a case in point about why public access to court proceedings is so essential because it allows the public to make sure that those proceedings are conducted honestly, fairly and efficiently,” Weeks said.
In a statement, responding to questions for this story, courthouse spokeswoman Jessica Davis defended the lack of notice for Friday’s hearing and the court’s practice of not advertising all hearings publicly.
“There is a constitutional first amendment requirement to access court proceedings, but I am not aware of a constitutional requirement for a certain type of notice, or timeframe for notice, to the public of hearings,” Davis said.
Davis said that while the North Carolina Rules of Practice require that the court gives notice to parties involved in a specific case, there is no requirement that the public be notified when a specific case is set for a hearing.
“There is no provision regarding public notice. The published calendars referenced in Rule 2 are what you see available online,” Davis said.
“Matters that have been added to or stricken from existing/published calendars are listed on the calendar/docket available at the courthouse but, again, every case that is scheduled may not appear on the calendar that is posted in advance online. Updated calendars are available upon request,” she continued. “Courtrooms are open to the public to come and view hearings.”
Weeks, the RCFP attorney, said the court’s policy of not giving the public notice of court hearings is problematic.
“The right of access isn’t meaningful if the public can’t figure out how or when the hearings are taking place,” he said.
“The expectation that the court would have that people could, you know, leave their homes, come to the courthouse in the midst of a pandemic in the hopes that the hearing they’re looking for that day seems unwise and unsafe.”
Weeks said that the consequence of reduced court transparency—like what is happening in Mecklenburg County—is the change that people will lose trust in the judicial system.
“The public trust in the court system is one of the main things that underlie the public right of access. You know, transparency into the judicial system is essential for the public to trust what’s going on in its courts,” Weeks said.
“The easiest solution for the court here would be to keep the public-facing on-line calendar and court docket up to date.”