A recent Tennessee Supreme Court rule change that will make oral
arguments from all of the state's appeals courts available online has
delivered a shock to some appeals court judges and family law attorneys.
current rules, oral arguments from the Court of Appeals, the Court of
Criminal Appeals and the Supreme Court are available by request and for a
nominal fee -- usually about $20.
But in a little-noticed policy
change in the name of "transparency and openness of the courts" expected
to take effect this spring, digital recordings of all oral arguments in
appeals courts will be available online at no cost.
has led some, including Appeals Court Judge Frank Clement, to voice
concern that it could complicate the lives of children whose parents are
going through messy divorces, not to mention "cast a dark cloud" over
the parents themselves, according to a letter Clement recently wrote to
the high court.
"I'm very concerned about Internet bullying,
harassing and abuse," Clement said in a telephone interview. "This is
not about the courts keeping secrets. It's about preventing children
from being abused and bullied."
Michele Wojciechowski, a Tennessee
Supreme Court spokeswoman, said giving the public open access to the
courts is important. That said, she noted that the court is now devising
a way to "mitigate possible abuse." The court will catalog complaints
over the program's one-year trial period.
The majority of states
allow appellate courts to make audio -- even video -- recordings of oral
arguments available on the Web, according to Wojciechowski.
many family lawyers are especially critical of the new rule, which they
say could create a cascade of unintended consequences.
have a sneaky or vindictive teenager, they'll figure out how to get this
stuff online," said attorney Karla Hewitt. "But adults are probably
more likely to do it. You can have a nosy neighbor who thinks something
is salacious and puts it on YouTube. Anyone can disseminate this
information in an unflattering way."
That's nonsense, says Frank
Gibson, policy director for the Tennessee Press Association. Any citizen
could sit in on the oral arguments, or request a copy of them in
person, he said. Wanting to limit access "does not sound like a rational
In Clement's letter to the court, he said the policy,
which was never publicly debated, could have a chilling effect on the
way the court system operates.
For example, attorneys might avoid
arguments that could humiliate clients, and it might make judges more
guarded. Conversely, the newly accessible recordings could encourage
other attorneys to "ramp it up" for the Internet audience.
Transparency is key
appellate judges and family attorneys have sent letters to the court
blasting the rule, he said. In addition, an association of local family
attorneys has organized a meeting to discuss how to address it.
Hewitt offered a solution: Let lawyers request exclusions in cases
involving minors. "They need to vet them and look at all the issues
before putting them online," she said.
The court, though, stands
by its policy on the grounds of transparency and the people's right to
know. While the court appreciates opponents' worries, Wojciechowski
said, "It is important for litigants, lawyers and the general public to
have access to the recordings."
Reach Bobby Allyn at 615-726-5990.