ICYMI: Lynch discusses access to courts, possible rule changes

SPJ Meeting Notes – Tuesday, Oct. 29, 2013

Our guest was Mary Ann Lynch, Government and Media Counsel for the Administrative Office of the Courts.   Essentially she’s been serving as the media relations point person for the court system since her position was created about five years ago.  Lynch sees part of her role as being an ombudsman between journalists and the courts.  She told several stories of instances when she was able to intervene on behalf of reporters who were having trouble gaining permissions from judges for recording under the current cameras-and-microphones-in-the-courts rules.
She reminded us that judges retain wide latitude in their handling of cases and Lynch suggested reporters not be afraid to ask for permissions that may appear to be beyond the scope of the current rules.
In dealing with court clerks, Lynch suggested reporters invest the time to get to know clerks and develop relationships that could smooth the way for future requests.
Lynch took a few moments to tout the live web streaming of Maine Supreme Judicial Court oral arguments, now joined by recorded copies made available for two subsequent weeks.  All present agreed this has been a useful development.
Lynch did say the courts may approach the Legislature next year for money to begin the process of making more docket and scheduling information online, but she said this will be a multi-year process at best (with funding not guaranteed).  She noted the current system is based on COBALT programming language, quite old and out-of-date.  When the federal system, PACER, was held up as a model, Lynch agreed, but noted that federal courts handle far fewer cases than state courts do, and all federal litigants are represented by counsel, something that doesn’t always happen here, complicating the job of clerks.
Lynch also didn’t offer any hope for electronic distribution of materials or creation of a computer terminal to allow members of the public to look up docket numbers.
On the positive side, there was discussion about a meeting being called by the Chief Justice for Dec. 12 in Portland.  The meeting will be aimed at hearing arguments for re-writing the state’s current cameras-and-mikes in the courts rule.  Lynch suggested this could be another opportunity to press the justices for a new rule regarding the use of social network systems, particularly Twitter, to post real-time information about ongoing trials.   Lynch suggested the court may be looking at emulating New Hampshire’s rules regarding recording in the courtrooms and suggested we direct some of our talking points toward the adequacy, or inadequacy of those rules.
Lynch encourages all with questions about media coverage of the courts to be in touch with her.  Her phone number, 207-592-5940, is a cell phone and so with her at all hours.   She did suggest e-mail to mary.ann.lynch@courts.maine.gov would be preferable, especially when she is at the statehouse, since during those times her phone must remain muted, but she will frequently check for messages.
— Irwin Gratz

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