Super Lawyers
William C. Altreuter

Wednesday, June 09, 2010

I love courthouses. They are, for me, civic structures that symbolize our democratic right of self-determination and governmental participation. As such, it seems to me, they should be as open and as assessable to the public as possible. Sadly, they are not. If you want to see the fabulous rotunda at 60 Centre Street, or the extravagant interior of the New York County Surrogate's Court-- or the grim confines of the Buffalo City Court building, or any other state court building you have to pass through a metal detector or have a $25 dollar card that proves you are a lawyer. Time was a person could go into a courthouse and just watch the proceedings without being hassled, but that ship has sailed.

Federal Court is even worse. Although oral arguments before the Supreme Court are recorded and available, they are not broadcast live, and the proceedings are not televised or photographed. In fact, when you go into a federal courthouse they take away your telephone, just to be sure that you are in the properly reverential 19th Century frame of mind. This can work some serious inconvenience. If you need to reach your client, for example, you can try to find a payphone, or ask the judge if you can use his phone, or, I suppose, attempt mental telepathy. In an exciting development the Chief Judge of the Federal District Court for the Western District of New York has announced that Personal Electronic Devices will now be permitted in the courthouse-- if you are a lawyer, and if you have a card that says you've read the rules. The rules are here; the application for the card is here. In a nutshell: no photographs or recordings; no sharing your phone with any non-lawyers; no using the phone except in the lobby unless the judge says you may; no phones anytime near Judge Arcara; and if you get caught breaking the rules you pay $100 bucks and lose your phone privileges, presumably forever.

I'm sincere when I say that I applaud this development. It is actually very progressive of Judge Skretny to do this, and I hope that the Chief Judges of the other federal district courts where I am admitted follow suit. Of course the whole thing is done with the usual federal court pomp and circumstance, but that's just how they roll: it's like a High Mass when they order lunch there. I guess I'd just like my governmental institutions to be more open more generally, and this development reminds me that they are not.

| Comments:
Coming to you soon will be a picture of the Old Federal Courthouse in St. Louis, now being (slowly), restored as a National Park Service Historic Building. It's claim to fame is that it was the site where the Dred Scott Decision was made. they show an excellent short film on the decision there.

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