Once again the Florida Supreme Court is reaching into the future, this time by broadcasting its courtroom sessions live on Facebook.
Florida is apparently the first court in the nation to make such proceedings available on social media. The court is already using Facebook to communicate and educate Floridians but will now take it a few steps further by putting all courtroom action on the court's social media site.
Florida courts have long led the way to be more open, first allowing cameras in courtrooms all over the state in the 1970s. Oral arguments before the court have long been available through public television and the court's website, but now anyone with access to the internet can easily see and hear what's going on. The new live Facebook viewing began recently with the broadcast of the Florida Bar's annual Pro Bono awards to lawyers who have helped needy litigants.
Oral arguments will go live on Facebook next Wednesday.
In the not so long ago past, the only way to hear what happened in the courtroom was to travel to Tallahassee and go to the Supreme Court. Then a landmark ruling allowed cameras in all Florida courtrooms, giving citizens the ability to see what was happening by tuning into public television. Internet connections have expanded the availability to anyone with a computer or cellphone.
The court had a crash course in open government when it found itself in the middle of the 2000 election battle with lawsuits swirling around the contest between George W. Bush and Al Gore. Dozens of lawsuits were filed as lawsuits for the two candidates were filed throughout the state.
When the 36-day election battle began, the court routinely distributed paper copies of its opinions and put some things on its internet page, but the number of people who could access their website was limited. That improved in 1999 after the malfunction of Florida's electric chair sparked a huge increase in challenges to the death penalty and the court faced repeated crashes of their internet connection.
When the presidential election contest came along a year later, the court was quickly inundated with even more demand for documents. Despite having beefed up its website to handle about 3.5 million hits a day, the court was swamped. They hired a company that duplicated the court's website on separate servers all across the globe to handle hundreds of millions of requests for documents each day. Lawyers and politicians everywhere wanted to see the court's orders and lawsuits filed on appeal.
Craig Waters, the court's longtime communications director, has led the effort to make documents and proceedings more available to the public since he graduated from law school and took a job as a clerk at the court. He started at the court as one of the first clerks for former Justice Rosemary Barnett, the first woman appointed to the court.
Waters gained national notice during the 2000 blizzard of lawsuits as reporters from all over the world broadcast his brief announcements of new decisions that would immediately be available on the internet.
Waters grew up on a farm near Beulah, a tiny community in the Florida Panhandle, and graduated from Brown University before working as a reporter for the Pensacola News Journal and Gannett's capitol bureau. He graduated from the University of Florida Law School and became a clerk at the court 31 years ago. He established the court's first public information office in 1996 and initiated the use of the internet for court documents and the first live video broadcasts of arguments before the court while working as executive assistant for Chief Justice Gerald Kogan. He credits his background as a reporter with helping him recognize the value of being more open.
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Chief Justice Jorge Labarga says he wants the court to be more available and is happy that anyone with a smartphone can now tune in where ever they happen to be: the beach, traveling or at work.
"I come from Cuba and witnessed Castro taking over the press and the judiciary, and replacing it with his own press and courts,'' Labarga recalled. "Justice needs to be seen, not just done."
The work of the courts is more credible once people see how litigants get a chance to present both sides before a decision is made, he added.
Other judges at the court are also supportive.
"Any move that increases public understanding is positive,'' noted Justice Barbara Pariente in an interview. She recalled hearing justices argue against cameras in the courtroom suggesting they would adversely affect the character and dialogue between judges and lawyers.
"But after years you aren't even really aware the cameras are there,'' she said.
Lucy Morgan is a retired state capital bureau chief and senior correspondent for the Tampa Bay Times.