Open court

The federal court system, long reluctant to embrace the technologies of transparency, is making slow but sure strides toward greater openness. On Tuesday, the U.S. Judicial Conference announced a couple of new policies that will improve public access to federal courts.

Judges voted to provide digital audio recordings of trials and hearings for $2.40 apiece. The recordings will be released shortly after proceedings end — no weeks-long waiting period for those public records.

Additionally, anyone searching federal court records over the Internet won’t be charged as much. Those who access the system won’t get a bill unless they look at more than $10 worth of records in a quarter.

Change in the federal government, as a rule, is incremental. It does not happen overnight, our current president’s promises notwithstanding. But more people in the federal courts finally are realizing that limiting public access to the judiciary can only degrade the taxpayers’ confidence in the integrity and accountability of the system.

Although the Judicial Conference officially opposes allowing any cameras in federal courts, in December the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco authorized the use of video cameras in civil, nonjury trials. The footage, controlled and edited by the court, cannot be broadcast live.

It’s progress. At some point, perhaps federal judges will acknowledge that if anyone can walk into federal court to witness the administration of justice, it doesn’t make a lot of sense to deny those who can’t attend a chance to see and hear it for themselves.

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