St. Joseph County 3B District Court Chief Judge Jeffrey Middleton shocked his thousands of YouTube followers this week by announcing he was turning off the livestream and shutting down access to virtual hearings.
“Some of you may have heard, someone may have posted that we will be ending our YouTube livestream essentially today,” Middleton said on Monday.
The long-haired judge went on to explain that he had received a call from Jill Booth, the state court region 5 administrator “strongly suggesting” he end the livestreams. Middleton said in the video that he felt obligated to do so as the Michigan Supreme Court and the administrator had originally recommended the Zoom and YouTube streaming option as a way to respond to pandemic orders making courts less accessible for the public.
Judges in Michigan are employed by the Supreme Court, and are guided by orders from that body. Those orders are enforced and monitored by the state court administrator, Tom Boyd. Administration and monitoring is conducted by one of six regional administrators. St. Joseph County is located in Region 5 and includes all of Southwest Michigan.
Middleton said his court was the only one in the state encouraged to shutter the live feed.
John Nevin, a spokesman for the Michigan Supreme Court, said the end of the stream was the result of a misunderstanding. Boyd, Nevin said, is “urging” Middleton to reconsider his decision.
“The state court administrator has apologized to Judge Middleton for any confusion regarding the livestream and urges judges statewide to continue live streaming proceedings,” Nevin said in a statement.
Middleton’s office said he was going to consider the request “for a few days.”
Middleton became a viral sensation in March when, during a hearing for a man accused of assaulting a woman, it was determined the man was in the house with the victim. That resulted in the man’s arrest and because it was on video, it made headlines across the country. Last week, video of him chastising a man who appeared with a profanity as his name on the Zoom hearing also went viral.
But in his sign off, the judge, who also has thousands following him on Reddit, raised concerns about the privacy rights of defendants, victims and others coming before the court.
When the pandemic hit, Middleton said, courts around the state were caught flatfooted. Some shut down operations altogether, while others, like 3B, created a skeleton operation. Ultimately, the Supreme Court ordered courts to hold hearings via Zoom. He said the move to the online world had been “an experiment in transparency.” But for him, at least, there was an “inherent flaw” in the entire online hearing process.
“Nobody asked the litigants what they thought about it,” he said from the bench. “Nobody asked the domestic violence victim or the young girl who got arrested for shoplifting. Or somebody that got arrested for drunk driving. Or somebody who has a prelim on a methamphetamine charge or something as simple as driving without a license: Nobody asked them, ‘What do you think about being broadcast on YouTube and having 1.5 million hits?’ That’s the downside of this.”
That’s a concern shared by the Supreme Court, said Nevin.
“We are aware of concerns about privacy that have been expressed by groups ranging from judges to prosecutors to survivors,” Nevin wrote in a statement. “We are examining existing court rules regarding when court closures are permitted in order to make sure rules regarding livestreams follow the law, protect privacy, and maintain public access.”
In fact, the Supreme Court empaneled a group to review policies and rules to continue streaming of court hearings beyond the COVID crisis. The Michigan Press Association also has privacy concerns, said Public Policy Manager Lisa McGraw, who sits on that committee.
“We want to make sure the transparency for online court remains the same as it is for in-person court,” she said.
In that vein, there are times when witnesses are shrouded, or courts require that victims not be videotaped. All those current options should remain, said McGraw.
Nevin said the working group that McGraw is part of has completed a draft of recommendations for continuing online courts hearings. The draft is currently being circulated to judges for their input and Nevin said he hopes it will be released by the end of the month.
“In fact, an upcoming ‘lessons learned’ report regarding the judiciary’s response to the pandemic is expected to recommend continued online proceedings and livestreams,” Nevin said. “These innovations have both made public access to proceedings much more convenient and increased transparency.”