The Baltimore City Circuit Court released an order dated April 24, 2019 that denies reporters the ability to obtain courtroom audio recordings. Independent journalist Justine Barron sued the judge that signed the order and Baltimore’s chief court reporter in response on May 2, alleging that it violates state law protections of public courtroom access.
Barron has covered numerous stories involving the city’s police department. She sought access to court audio recordings on April 17 as part of a case she is investigating.
Barron told the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker that the circuit court was getting ready to fulfill her request, and told her she needed a check or money order. On April 23, Court Technologist Christopher Metcalf sent an email to Barron that she could pick up the record the next day.
The next day, Barron was abruptly informed that the court would restrict “access of court audio to parties from now on.” Now, she said, she’ll have to return the money order she obtained to the post office and hope it will be refunded.
Barron noted that in Maryland, only parties to the case can obtain courtroom video, but anyone can obtain audio or transcripts.
“I kept being told that I’d have to view it in the office,” she said. “But I was wondering if he [Metcalf] was confused, because I wasn’t looking to view anything. And then it was clarified that they aren’t letting anyone get audio recordings, but didn’t say anything about an order at first.”
Metcalf’s supervisor, Trish Trikeriotis, wrote to Barron on April 25 that the court had ordered that only parties or counsel representing a party were permitted to receive copies of recordings, although Barron could review the proceedings on site.
On April 29, Barron was sent a copy of a one-sentence order — dated April 24, the day she had originally been told she would be able to pick up the record — signed by Judge W. Michel Pierson:
“Pursuant to the terms of Maryland Rule 16-504(h)(1)(C), it is, this day of April 24, 2019, ORDERED, that no copies of audio recordings maintained by the Office of the Court Reporter shall be made available to persons other than parties to the relevant proceeding or counsel to the relevant proceeding.”
Although courts in Maryland have historically granted the public access to audio recordings, broadcasting these recordings is prohibited. Several podcast producers have done so anyway, and a local journalist that Barron has worked with in the past has challenged the legality of prohibiting broadcasting the recordings.
A litigator with the Institute for Constitutional Advocacy and Protection at Georgetown University Law Center told The Intercept that denial of access to these audio recordings was “trying to replace one unlawful policy with another.”
Barron said that although the order initially appeared to target her specifically, it has affected other Baltimore reporters.
“After I was denied, at least one other person was able to get his CD,” she said. “The next day, someone was able to get one. So it seemed to be about me at first, but now, they’re punishing everyone.”
Paul McGrew, a Fox45 investigative reporter in Baltimore, wrote on social media that he was also denied access to courtroom audio recordings under the new order.
We requested court audio from Balt. City Circuit Court and have been told Administrative Judge W. Michel Pierson is no longer allowing media to acquire court audio per the Recorders’ Office at Circuit Court.— Paul McGrew (@McGrewFox45) April 29, 2019
Barron’s lawsuit alleges that Judge Pierson’s order violates Maryland state law, which makes audio recordings of all trial court proceedings open to the public.
“...[A] local administrative order cannot override a State Rule,” it states. “Moreover, the ‘order’ that the Court Reporter’s office cited remains shrouded in mystery: the Court has not identified its reasons or authority for issuing the ‘order,’ nor has it posted the order publicly. These events paint a disturbing picture—that of local court officials seeking to stymie the State’s goal of shining a light on the judiciary and, worse yet, seeking to do so in the dark.”
Terri Charles, Assistant Public Information Officer for the Government Relations and Public Affairs Division of the Maryland Judiciary, provided the Tracker with a statement:
“The Judiciary does not comment on pending litigation. The media and the public can still listen to the court proceedings at the courthouse. The order states that copies are no longer available.”
Barron told the Tracker that courtroom recordings are critical in shedding important context on a case so that the press and lawyers can better understand what happened — which a transcript of the audio could not provide.
“Transcripts are not always accurate,” she said. “They are often full of typos. And a transcript is a document that the court has decided we can see — so we have to trust that they haven’t made a decision to edit it in some way. And the nuance of what happens in courtrooms is very important — like if someone stalls before answering or laughs, these details are important.”