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NPO publishes blog articles to inform and to stimulate conversation about issues of importance to NPO's mission.  All blog articles express the opinions of the authors as individuals and do not necessarily reflect the views of National Parents Organization, its Board of Directors, or its executives.  

June 10, 2015 by Robert Franklin, Esq, Member, National Board of Directors, National Parents Organization

The more citizens and aggrieved parents seek information about family courts, the more those courts seem to want to act in secret. Recipients of this week’s National Parents Organization newsletter will be informed about the refusal of the Nebraska family courts to allow the public to know what training materials they use to educate judges about the best interests of children as it relates to time with their parents post-divorce. Now, you may well wonder what can be the need for secrecy about such a benign thing as judicial training materials, but it’s taken a lawsuit by a Nebraska father to pry the information out of them. And it hasn’t happened yet. So we hope to find out in the near future about what social science judges are being taught and how it’s affecting their parenting orders.

Meanwhile in Connecticut, the U.S. Attorney’s Office has launched an investigation into, among others, the state’s family courts. Allegations of corruption and self-dealing have been simmering there for years. And of course that type of wrongdoing thrives best out of the public eye. The investigation shows the promise of bringing to light the inner workings of courts that, generally speaking, aren’t used to having anyone looking over their shoulder.

Now there’s this out of Michigan (Central Michigan Life, 2/27/15). It seems that family courts there have prohibited the use of cellphones in the courtroom. No, it’s not because people were disrupting the proceedings by talking on phones or the phones’ constantly ringing, chiming, alerting, etc. The judges don’t seem to mind any of that; what’s gotten them to issue their blanket order is that one litigant had the nerve to record the proceedings on his/her phone and use it to claim that the official court reporter’s transcript was inaccurate.

This, according to the judges, poses a “security threat” to the courts. Really.

The policy, effective March 9, has been adopted to maintain the security of the courthouse, preserve the integrity of the court record and the trial process and to ensure appropriate courtroom behavior. 

"Unfortunately the irresponsible act of one person is causing us to respond at this juncture," said Chief Judge Paul Chamberlain…

"It's a harsh remedy to the problems that are coming to light," he said. "We have recognized for years that this is a security issue and maintaining the integrity of the record issue, but trying to be as open as possible to the public. We cannot allow people to come into the courthouse, make recordings, and then present those recordings as a record of court proceedings. There is an official record, a way to get that record, and it maintains the integrity of the court and individual cases to make sure an accurate and complete record gets out," Chamberlain said.

All of that of course is arrant nonsense. If the official transcript of proceedings is inaccurate, there’s nothing like a verbatim recording to demonstrate the fact. And surely everyone concerned — judges, lawyers and litigants — want an accurate record, right? And if the recording shows the official transcript to be correct, so much the better.

And needless to say, there’s no possible “security threat” from a simple tape recording. As if to make the point, the article linked to makes the most preposterous comparison imaginable.

In 1997, a jail inmate who had been placed on suicide watch since his arrest on bank robbery charges shot and killed himself inside the Isabella County Courthouse after grabbing a gun from a bailiff's holster. 

"When he came back in looking for the judge (myself), he bled to death right there in front of the jury box," Chamberlain said. 

He went on to describe an incident in 2002 where a man shot and killed his ex-wife and two other people in the courthouse parking lot. 

"We have a responsibility to the public, to the court staff and to jurors to maintain their safety while they are in this building," he said.

As I understand it, both Judge Chamberlain and the article’s writer seem to believe that homicidal criminals with firearms are the reason the courts banned anyone and everyone from bringing cellphones into the courtroom. Just how they figure the two have anything to do with each other, I have yet to grasp. The truth of course is that there is no comparison. That Chamberlain stoops to such an obvious irrelevancy strongly suggests he knows that cellphones pose no sort of threat to anyone.

The only threat they do pose of course is to the ability of judges to act secretly. In the past we’ve seen videos of family court judges berating litigants in the most grotesque and unprofessional manners. Family court litigants often complain that they’re not given an opportunity to present their side of the case. Plus, to get a copy of the official transcript can cost a lot of money. Court reporters don’t produce those free of charge, and a handy cellphone recording would make the process that much easier and cheaper.

So for the time being at least, it’s greater secrecy for the family courts of central Michigan and less information for the people of the state about what its public servants are up to. Meanwhile, one lawyer has filed the obvious lawsuit claiming the ban to be a violation of our First Amendment right of free speech.

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#familycourts, #secrecy, #cellphones, #securitythreat

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