While some trial courts around the state use video conferencing equipment to conduct proceedings, it is believed that Hinds County is the first trial court in the state to allow the public to watch online through a video streaming service provided by the court.
Judge Peterson said that she is concerned about public access to court proceedings during the COVID-19 pandemic. Limitations on the number of people who can be present in a courtroom have created access problems for families of crime victims, families of defendants and others interested in watching court proceedings.
“My concern is we can’t get everyone into the courtroom,” Judge Peterson said. “The court has to be open, especially for jury trials.”
She asked Hinds County’s Information Technology department to modify the video conferencing equipment already used by the court. The modification allows public viewing via the county’s website.
“This will allow them just to watch, so that we can fulfill that objective that the Courthouse is open to the public,” Judge Peterson said. “It gives more people greater access.”
Courts in a few other states are using livestreaming to provide public access to their proceedings. Among those are courts in California, Indiana, Michigan, Oregon, Texas and Wisconsin. Most set up public access to livestreaming as a result of the pandemic.
The Mississippi Supreme Court and the Court of Appeals have provided livestreamed webcasts of oral arguments since 2001.
Judge Peterson is the only one of the four Hinds Circuit Judges using livestream access to the public at this time. Senior Hinds Circuit Judge Tomie Green said that Judge Peterson’s efforts will serve as a pilot program to prepare the way for possible broader implementation.
“I wanted to be the guinea pig,” Judge Peterson said of testing the program.
Judge Green said, “I think it is progressive and one of the things we will have to look at in terms of meeting our obligations to be open to the public.”
Judge Green said that court rules will need to be adopted to address livestreaming by the courts, taking into account some proceedings which would not be subject to video livestreaming. For instance, some witness testimony would need to be protected, such as that of confidential informants or persons who might be threatened or harmed.
“I think it’s a great idea in terms of the public having access to the court,” Judge Green said. “I think it’s something we should certainly start using in the future. We want to start looking at putting some rules in place that protect the sanctity of the trial, so that we don’t open it up to people who would abuse that system….We also want to be sure that we are protecting the people who come into our court.”
During trials, jurors will be seated out of the camera’s view, Judge Peterson said.
Judge Green said, “Hopefully when we perfect it, it will be something that other courts will consider. It’s a great educational tool too. It’s a part of our future. Clearly things are not going to be able to be done as they have been, and we are learning new ways.”
Hinds County already used the video conferencing service Lifesize to allow judges to conduct video conference proceedings with detainees at the Hinds County Detention Center and to conduct hearings in civil cases. Hinds County’s IT department was able to modify the service for public access at no extra cost.
The livestream may be viewed while Judge Peterson’s court is in session. Anyone wishing to view the proceedings may access the livestream via the Hinds Circuit Court Judge District 4 page at http://www.hindscountyms.com/court-systems/circuit-court-judges/district-4#overlay-context=.
The July 15 proceedings included guilty pleas. The next proceedings expected to be livestreamed are arraignments scheduled for July 17 at 9:30 a.m.