Openness should be hallmark of courts of future, Ohio commission says

Friday, May 5, 2000

COLUMBUS, Ohio — Public confidence in the courts is linked to how much citizens can learn — on their own and through the press — about the court system.

With this in mind, the Ohio Courts Futures Commission has a vision of a statewide network of court-provided computer terminals linking the public to the state’s courthouses and county law libraries.

By 2025, the system would be in place and staff would be available to help people with special needs conduct public information searches, ensuring that no one is locked out.

However, Ohio Chief Justice Thomas J. Moyer, who appointed the 52-member Futures Commission, said it would be a mistake to think of public accessibility only in terms of the physical.

“The more people know about the court system, the higher their confidence in the courts. We have to convince judges it is in their best interest and the court’s interest to be as open as possible,” Moyer said. “This is where technology recommendations are so important. You don’t have to go to the courthouse to get information.”

Widening public access is just one of 63 sweeping recommendations made by the Futures Commission in a report released May 1 of necessary changes within the court system over the next quarter century.

“Enhancing public respect and confidence in the judicial system in the new century will require bringing government closer to the people and using technology to meet contemporary norms of efficiency, customer service and user convenience,” the commission report said.

The commission has been peering into a crystal ball for the past three years, assessing current strengths of Ohio’s court system, defining guiding objectives and anticipating social, economic, scientific and technological trends.

The commission recommended adopting new approaches and expanding functions that cover court access, public understanding and confidence, technological infrastructure, court organization, management, rules, processes, dispute resolution, jury reform and judicial qualifications. Continued and improved openness plays a major role in those suggestions.

The commission did not attempt to balance right-to-privacy issues with public right-to-know issues, said commission member Judge Ann Marie Tracey of Hamilton County.

“It was beyond our task, but we know particular care should be taken in using alternative dispute methods to resolve issues of public interest, public safety or public policy (while considering) the public’s right to know,” Tracey said. “Hopefully, guidelines will be developed in the future.”

That said, the public should have broad rights to obtain the details for decisions on matters of public policy, the commission noted.

“Balancing these interests,” the report continued, “will be important in the use of mediation as public policy disputes increase.”

The media will continue to be a major information source for the public, but if court system officials want to improve the quality of the media’s coverage of legal matters they also will need to play an active role.

“[C]ourts must cultivate working relationships with reporters and commentators (while recognizing that those relationships may at times have adversarial overtones),” the commission said.

Courts must seek opportunities to train and orient journalists to legal issues, court operations and rules, and “… make knowledgeable spokespersons readily available as sources of objective, reliable, background information on breaking news stories,” the report said.

The commission also said that live coverage of appropriate judicial proceedings or video replays, through traditional and new technological means, should be encouraged. To help journalists remain current, law schools should be prompted to present programs on justice and on current and emerging issues to the media.

The commission also recommended a re-examination of judicial canons to loosen the reins on judges, allowing them to interact and share information with community members. Active participation by judges and other court officials in community activities would help provide insight into issues that affect citizens, the commission said.

“This is a critical strategy not only for conveying accurate information to the public,” the commission said, “but in making courts more approachable to all citizens and promoting public ownership of the judicial system.”

T.C. Brown covers courts in Columbus for Cleveland’s Plain Dealer newspaper.