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Chairman Nadler Statement for the Subcommittee Hearing on “The Federal Judiciary in the 21st Century: Ensuring the Public’s Right of Access to the Courts”

Washington, September 26, 2019

Washington, D.C. – Today, House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler (D-NY) delivered the following opening remarks during a Subcommittee on Courts, Intellectual Property, and the Internet hearing on access to the courts: 

“Thank you, Mr. Chairman, for holding this important hearing on the public’s access to the courts.  No one in this room takes for granted the complexity and importance of the federal judiciary’s job of administering justice and doing so fairly.  That role is fundamental, but it is undermined when the public cannot see the judiciary’s work being done. 

“Every day, federal appellate judges across the country review complex cases of public interest, and each term the Supreme Court examines important constitutional and federal issues that have a long-lasting impact on society.  

“Despite these courts’ influence, only a few federal courts have been in step with modern standards of access and have allowed visual media coverage or provided real-time audio streaming.  And at the Supreme Court, the public must wait until the end of the week to hear recordings of oral arguments, with some exceptions. 

“This means that most of the public rarely has the ability to see the courts’ public deliberations as they happen in real-time.  Many people do not live near, or even in the same state, as their circuit court of appeals.  They find it difficult to travel to Washington and stand outside for hours, or even days—or to pay someone to stand in line for them—to witness history at the Supreme Court. 

“The public’s right of access is fundamental, and it is not adequately protected when our courts fall far behind modern standards of media access.  The realization of this right should not be left to the lucky, or the wealthy, or the well-connected few. 

“In most federal courtrooms, real-time access to court proceedings is no more available today than it was in the 19th century.  The ability to stream from almost any place, and on almost any device, has also become so pervasive and inexpensive that this is the immediacy that the public has come to reasonably expect from their government. 

“The federal judiciary’s progress been slow-paced in this area, and our federal courts have fallen far behind their peers in the states and even courts abroad.  Most state court systems allow livestream video of their proceedings.  So do the Supreme Courts of the United Kingdom, Canada, and Australia.  It is surprising, and disappointing, that our own courts have been so willing to keep their doors closed and have so grudgingly allowed them to be opened even a crack.  Live video ought to be the rule, tempered by judicial discretion, due process, and privacy concerns. 

“I, and many of my colleagues, have long been advocates for increasing access to the courts through media coverage and real-time streaming of proceedings. 

On this front, last Congress, I introduced the “Eyes on the Court Act,” which would establish a presumption of audio-visual access to Supreme Court and circuit court proceedings, but leave judges with the discretion to turn the cameras off when the interest of justice of requires it.  I anticipate reintroducing this legislation, and I look forward to hearing the views of our witnesses on the bill and on the issue of cameras in the courtroom more generally. 

“Of course, accessibility and openness entail more than cameras and audio.  It is critical that the public has a meaningful and modernized way to access court records, and I appreciate the leadership of Ranking Member Collins on efforts to reform the PACER system.  

“I also look forward to discussing the disturbing trend of routine sealed court filings that conceal vital health and safety information from the public.  I have been concerned for many years about secret settlements and protective orders that companies obtain to prevent the public from learning important information regarding the health and safety effects of their products. 

“That is why I plan to reintroduce the “Sunshine in Litigation Act,” which would require that information relating to public health and safety in protective orders or settlement agreements be made public, unless a court makes a finding that there is a “specific and substantial interest” in keeping such information secret that outweighs the public interest. 

“As two of our witnesses have documented, the problem of shielding critical health and safety information from the public extends to sealed court filings, and I appreciate their work in bringing this critical issue to light. 

“Transparency is vital to the integrity of the judiciary, and it is vital to maintaining the public’s trust in our courts, particularly as attacks on judicial independence and the rule of law have become more common.  

“I am pleased that we are examining these issues today, and I am optimistic that today’s hearing will lead to a productive dialogue about how the judiciary can best reach the public in a way that reflects modern standards and makes sense in this 21st century environment.   I know that Chairman Johnson sees today’s hearing as part of an ongoing conversation and collaboration with our federal courts, and so do I.  

“I look forward to hearing from all of our witnesses on these important topics, and I yield back the balance of my time.”

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