Chuck Williams: Making history in federal court, one tweet at a time.

chwilliams@ledger-enquirer.comSeptember 23, 2013 

Judge Clay Land

Sometimes, you just have to ask.

We all know the rules, but every now and then if you ask — and your request is not unreasonable — you might be surprised by the answer.

That was the case a couple of weeks ago in federal court.

First, I asked if I could bring an iPad into U.S. District Court during a gender discrimination trial involving Muscogee County Sheriff John Darr. In reporting these days, some of us use an iPad more than a notepad.

Only attorneys are allowed to bring computers, iPads and cellphones into the courtroom in Middle District of Georgia. It’s a hard and fast rule. But we all know federal judges have broad powers to bend rules.

To my surprise, Judge Clay Land said yes.

Once the iPad was in the courtroom, through a court officer I asked the judge a second question. What are my limitations? Specifically I wanted to know if I could post to social media during the trial.

Land was open to the idea of making his courtroom more transparent.

After consulting with the attorneys while the jury was on a 15-minute break, Land said yes again, this time in open court on the record.

By saying yes twice, Land became the first judge in Georgia’s Middle District to allow a reporter to tweet during a federal trial.

Why?

“Maybe you are the first reporter to ask,” Land said in an interview Monday.

Maybe, but it is clear there was an overriding reason. Land has long been on the record that the federal courts should be transparent.

“It sends a message what we do up here is the public’s business,” Land said. “We should be as transparent as we can.”

There is nothing that sends the message of transparency more than hundreds of tweets that became an almost play-by-play account of the trial. And the publication of the testimony, lawyers’ arguments and judge’s comments were almost immediate.

Gregory J. Leonard, clerk of the Middle District, did not seem surprised that Land was the first of the five Middle District judges to allow live electronic reporting out of his courtroom.

“He seems sensitive to the public’s right to know,” Leonard said.

Land said that it is important that the federal judicial branch be transparent.

“We do not have the power of the purse or the power of the sword,” Land said. “Our judgments are accepted only because people believe in and accept the power of law.”

One of the arguments against tweeting from the courtroom is it can be disruptive.

“One of the judge’s jobs is to make sure none of that distracts attention from what is happening in the courtroom,” Land said. “I didn’t see any distractions.”

One of the Atlanta attorneys who consented to the use of social media in the Darr case remarked that this would have never happened in the Northern District of Georgia.

Probably not.

But Land has considered it before.

During the 2009 Mark Shelnutt federal criminal trial, Land set up a media room just off his courtroom, but no computers or cellphones could be taken into the courtroom. Attorneys for Shelnutt objected to tweeting from court because they claimed it constituted broadcasting, which is not allowed in federal court. In fact, with the exception of a pilot program in limited districts, no cameras are allowed in federal court.

After more than a week’s worth of tweets, I would argue it is not broadcasting. It is one reporter’s take on the proceedings, just like an article in the next day’s paper.

Land explained Monday why criminal cases differ from civil proceedings.

“There are additional concerns in criminal cases,” Land said. “You have to balance the transparency with the defendant’s right to a fair trial.”

The judge said any future tweeting out of federal court would likely be taken up on a case-by-case basis.

The reporter just has to ask.

More Chuck Williams:

Chuck Williams: A lemon, a penny and a thought

Chuck Williams: Not even an ex-wife can mess up a Saturday afternoon at a Georgia game

Chuck Williams: Pasko's death hits close to home

Chuck Williams, senior editor for content, chwilliams@ledger-enquirer.com

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