District Attorney Krasner Calls for Criminal Court Proceedings to Be Open to the Press & Public as the Constitution Requires
Jane Roh, District Attorney’s Office, 215–686–8711, Jane.Roh@phila.gov
PHILADELPHIA (April 16, 2020) — District Attorney Larry Krasner on Thursday called for the First Judicial District to open criminal court proceedings during the COVID-19 judicial emergency to members of the press and the public in order to comply with the First and Sixth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution as well as the Pennsylvania Constitution.
“I am grateful to the courts for expanding streamlined consideration of release motions so that people who do not need to be in custody for public safety reasons can be released, in order to help stop the spread of COVID-19 in our jails,” District Attorney Krasner said. “But we cannot disregard the public’s right of access to courts which is enshrined in our federal and state constitutions and promotes transparency and accountability in justice. In my view, that right to public access can and must be upheld by technology even where opening courtrooms for physical access by the public is not possible.”
The Pennsylvania Supreme Court has issued an order specifically encouraging courts of the Commonwealth to utilize modern communication technologies to conduct hearings during the COVID-19 judicial emergency. Currently, criminal court hearings in many other jurisdictions are being conducted via Zoom and other technological means, but not so in Philadelphia where the courts are employing a combination of an actual courtroom (where the public is excluded and the press is mostly excluded and only permitted on occasion as selectively determined by the court) and telephonic participation by the District Attorney’s Office and the Public Defender. District Attorney Krasner has requested more than once that emergency court hearings be conducted using video conferencing products such as Zoom or Skype.
On Wednesday, WHYY reported that one Common Pleas judge who denied all emergency relief motions over two days of hearings had both declined to respond to a request for comment and “she denied a reporter’s request to listen in on a live audio feed of the hearings assigned to her courtroom.” However, reporters at outlets including WHYY and the Philadelphia Inquirer have selectively been granted access to courtrooms run by at least one other judge while being excluded from the other courtrooms.
“Allowing the press to remotely observe one but not all courtrooms both proves that remote access for press to all courtrooms could be easily provided, and raises additional concern about inconsistent application of constitutional requirements,” District Attorney Krasner continued. “It’s not for the court to determine if, when, and which courtrooms the public and press are allowed to observe. It’s not for the courts to become gatekeepers for what the public wants to know about how their hearings are conducted. In order to ensure the integrity of these proceedings and their outcomes, the criminal legal system must uphold the First and Sixth Amendment rights of the press, the public, and interested court watchers who perform an essential accountability function.”
District Attorney Krasner added: “The power to take or give people liberty is an awesome power that must be exercised fairly, based on the facts and evidence, and never under cover of darkness. Emergencies of all types are the usual excuse for governmental power being used to illegally take people’s constitutional rights. People know better because they are using technology all the time to solve the problems that this pandemic and the necessity of social distancing present. My office, the Defender, the Philadelphia Police, and the First Judicial District must all be accountable for our roles in stopping this pandemic and protecting the public’s health and safety. The press and the public are entitled to transparency so that the people who have entrusted us with such awesome power can hold us accountable.”
The Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office is the largest prosecutor’s office in Pennsylvania, and one of the largest in the nation. It serves the more than 1.5 million citizens of the City and County of Philadelphia, employing 600 lawyers, detectives, and support staff. The District Attorney’s Office is responsible for prosecution of approximately 40,000 criminal cases annually.