Local Journalist Sues Baltimore Court Officials Demanding Access to Audio Recordings
Institute for Constitutional Advocacy and Protection represents Justine Barron as fight for court transparency widens
[Baltimore, MD] — A local journalist and writer has filed a lawsuit asserting that Baltimore City court officials have violated a state rule requiring them to provide public access to audio recordings of court proceedings. Justine Barron seeks a court order directing the Baltimore City Court Reporter’s office—which houses all local court recordings—to comply with Maryland Rule 16-504(h), which requires court officials to “make a copy of [an] audio recording . . . available to any person upon written request.” Until last week, the Baltimore City Circuit Court had routinely provided audio recordings of court proceedings to the public upon request. Ms. Barron was the first person whose request for an audio recording was denied under the court’s new policy.
“The availability of courtroom audio is important for journalists, like myself, and for the public to understand the full scope of what happens during trials—not all of which is apparent in a transcript,” said Ms. Barron. “Like most people, I don’t have full days or weeks to watch trial video at the courthouse. I’m frustrated that the local courts are suddenly using their powers to restrict access to their own proceedings.”
The court’s change in policy follows on the heels of a letter that the Institute for Constitutional Advocacy and Protection (ICAP) sent to local court officials last month on behalf of another journalist concerning a controversial state law prohibiting the broadcast of audio recordings from criminal trials. That letter notified the court that Amelia McDonell-Parry, a journalist who reports on criminal-justice issues, intended to use audio recordings from a high-profile criminal case on her podcast series, Undisclosed. The letter explained that the blanket ban on broadcasting criminal court proceedings, which is codified in § 1-201 of Maryland’s Code of Criminal Procedure, likely violates the First Amendment. The court’s new policy restricting public access to court audio recordings appears to be a response to that letter—and part of court officials’ broader effort to prevent recordings of court proceedings from being widely shared.
Ms. Barron was notified of the policy change on April 24, one week after she initially submitted her request for an audio recording. After Ms. Barron repeatedly requested an explanation for the policy change, the court eventually provided her with a copy of an administrative order, signed by Administrative Judge W. Michel Pierson, stating 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.” The court has not posted the order publicly and has provided no explanation for the change in policy.
“This isn’t just a transparency issue—it’s a rule-of-law issue,” said Daniel Rice, one of the attorneys representing Ms. Barron. “Baltimore court officials are attempting to nullify a statewide rule through local administrative fiat. We’re eager to fight these officials’ brazen effort to exempt themselves from existing Maryland law.”
Meanwhile, challenges to the state’s ban on broadcasting recordings of criminal proceedings continue to mount. This morning, a group of journalists and local community organizations submitted letters to court officials asserting their intent to include criminal-court recordings on their websites and in upcoming projects, including a documentary film. The letters (available here and here) ask court officials to specify what harm, if any, would actually arise from their decision to broadcast or publish the recordings.
A copy of Ms. Barron’s complaint is available here.
About the Institute for Constitutional Advocacy and Protection (ICAP)
ICAP uses the power of the courts to defend American constitutional rights and values. Based at Georgetown Law Center, ICAP draws on expert litigators, savvy litigation strategy, and the constitutional scholarship of Georgetown to vindicate individuals’ rights and to protect America’s constitutional way of life.