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Courts & Justice

Allegheny County Judge Opens Courtroom To Online Viewing, But Not In All Cases

Judge Anthony Mariani.jpg
Allegheny County Court of Common Pleas
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After being sued last month for blocking virtual access to his courtroom, Allegheny County Common Pleas Judge Anthony Mariani has been allowing remote attendance by court observers — but not in all cases.

The Abolitionist Law Center filed the suit in federal court, alleging that earlier this year Mariani denied more than 100 requests from ALC’s volunteer court watchers to view criminal proceedings online.

Within a few days of being sued, Mariani began to allow the court watchers to observe hearings remotely, according to ALC Court Watch program director Autumn Redcross. And several weeks later, President Judge Kim Clark issued an order requiring that the public receive online access “to those proceedings that are being conducted remotely … rather than by in-person proceeding.”

A few times since then, Mariani has denied virtual access to Court Watch volunteers, Redcross said.

For example, one day two weeks ago, “we were given notice that all the hearings were going to be non-remote and therefore not accessible,” Redcross said. “And … there were two [other] incidents where we were … in a remote courtroom and we were told that the next case coming up … was not remote and that we had to disconnect.”

The Court Watch program started over a year ago and now has about 80 active volunteers, Redcross said. The group regularly monitors local court proceedings and shares its observations through social media, articles, and reports, according to the lawsuit.

Nicolas Riley, senior counsel at the Institute for Constitutional Advocacy and Protection at the Georgetown University Law Center, represents the court watchers, along with attorneys from the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania. He said Mariani has interpreted Clark’s March 26 order as not requiring virtual access when all case participants — including attorneys, clients, and witnesses — appear in person.

But during the coronavirus pandemic, Riley said, the public has a First Amendment right to view court proceedings online.

“It doesn't really make sense to say that the public's constitutional right of access is tied to, for instance, whether or not the participants in a given hearing have been vaccinated and feel comfortable going to the courthouse,” Riley said. “The public has a right to see all court proceedings, regardless of the comfort level of the lawyers in a given case.”

A staffer for Mariani declined to comment. And a court administration spokesperson would not discuss how Clark’s order applies to proceedings where participants are all physically present, saying the administration would not weigh in on pending litigation.

After Clark issued her remote access policy March 26, the Abolitionist Law Center agreed to put the lawsuit on hold. But because Mariani continued to bar virtual access to his courtroom in some instances, Riley said the pause in litigation will last another two weeks. He said attorneys will use that time to “try and iron out [those] hiccups … [and figure] out which hearings Mariani is really obligated to provide virtual access for.”

Riley, who has handled court access cases across the country, said he’s aware of no other instance nationally where a judge who has the means to permit online attendance has refused to do so. He described Mariani as an “outlier.”

Riley’s institute at Georgetown has been instrumental in a months-long effort to expand virtual access to Allegheny County courts. Together with the ACLU, Riley’s organization pushed the court to launch an online portal where members of the public can request a Microsoft Teams link to view criminal court proceedings remotely. (Requests must be submitted by 9 a.m. at least one business day before a hearing.)

Redcross, meanwhile, remains “perplexed” by Mariani’s resistance to remote attendance. “The justice system needs to be participatory,” she said, “and I believe that it needs to serve the people which it purports to keep safe.”

Court watchers "observe and they document what they see,” Redcross said. “And we're able to look at what they’ve recorded and determine where people's human rights or civil rights or constitutional rights are being violated.”