I am a big fan of becoming utterly transparent when it comes to operating the federal trial courts. See, e.g., Richard G. Kopf, The Courts, the Internet, E-filing and Democracy, 56 University of New Brunswick Law Journal 40 (2007). So are my fellow Nebraska judges. In this post, I will do two things. First, I will briefly describe a few of the important things we are doing in the District of Nebraska to make our court and judges more transparent. Second, I will solicit your suggestions for how we (and other federal trial courts) could do a better job of becoming and remaining transparent. I hope you think this task is as important as I do.
We jumped into the Case Management and Electronic Case Filing (CM/ECF) system early on. We became the first federal trial court in the nation to put all our cases–both criminal and civil–on a computer system that is available to the public 24 hours a day from anywhere in the world. That means that every document filed in any case is available for review or download for a small fee except those filings that a judge seals or restricts for privacy reasons and the like.
CM/ECF also now serves as a platform for digital audio recording of trials and hearings. Because I don’t use a court reporter, but rely upon digital audio exclusively, anyone, anywhere on a daily basis can access for a very minimal cost any trial or hearing that I conduct save for recordings restricted for security reasons. The digital file is normally available on the same day the trial and hearing is held.
Our judges have each agreed to put his or her sentencing statistics on our external web site. Those statistics are prepared by the Sentencing Commission from data complied by the Commission. We are the first and only court to release this data for each judge and by the name of each judge. Publishing this data in this form is a big deal. It is controversial because publication in this form allows the reader to focus in on specific judges, and there is a legitimate fear that such data could be misused. Nonetheless, every one of our judges, very courageously in my view, thought the public had the right to know what each judge’s sentencing statistics showed. Those statistics are on our external web site under the tab for Judges’ Information.
Speaking of our external web site, the lawyers and the public can find a lot of information on that site. For example, each judge has a daily calendar, generated by CM/ECF, that shows what the judge will be doing in the courtroom for each day of the week. As things change, the calendar is constantly updated by CM/ECF. For example, by clicking on my calendar you will find that I am conducting a supervised release violation hearing and a sentencing proceeding over the noon hour today. By taking the case number from the calendar, you can look up all the filings in the case using CM/ECF to see what is going on in that particular matter. At the end of the day, you can listen to the digital audio recording of the proceeding.
Additionally, under the Judges Information tab, some of our judges disclose their recusal (disqualification) lists. Some even disclose their yearly financial disclosure reports on our external web site.
Perhaps the most innovative and unusual method of achieving true transparency was pioneered by Judge Joe Bataillon, when he was Chief Judge. Our court governance structure (which is publicly available here) calls for meetings of all the judges and those meetings are held quarterly. At those meetings, the great bulk of the court’s internal operating issues are resolved. Judge Bataillon, with the agreement of the other judges, opened up those meetings. Now, the Federal Public Defender, the United States Attorney, a Criminal Justice Act panel attorney, and the attorney who is the Chair of our Federal Practice Committee, attend each meeting and have almost complete access to the information discussed at those meeting. It is worth noting that those meeting can become very heated as the judges grapple with difficult operational issues confronting the court. These lawyers participate in the discussion and, in turn, this serves to maintain a good working relationship between the bench and bar. I believe this innovation is entirely unique.
Finally, I would like to hear from you. Do you know of a district that is doing something significant in the way of transparency that you care to share? Do you have proposals that would advance the goal of transparency? Do you have gripes about the lack of transparency that you would like to highlight? I am very interested in your views. As I said when I began this post, judicial transparency is important. Indeed, it is too important to leave to the judges.