Jon Campisi Sep. 19, 2013, 12:04pm


A western Pennsylvania trial court judge has issued an order temporarily

blocking online access to electronic civil dockets when a particular case goes to trial.

Allegheny County Common Pleas Court Judge W. Terrence O’Brien, the administrative judge of the civil trial division, acted on a recommendation by the Academy of Trial Lawyers of Allegheny County to temporarily block access to civil dockets due to jurors’ inappropriately perusing the online information during trials, according to a recent story in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

O’Brien’s order still enables anyone, including members of the public and news media, to access certain civil dockets, but they now must do so the old fashioned way – in person at the courthouse.

“I did everything I could to minimize the impact to the public and the press,” O’Brien told the western Pennsylvania newspaper on Tuesday. “The potential for prejudice to the parties outweighed the minimal restriction to public access.”

The judge was quoted as saying the move was necessary due to the ability of those serving on juries to access court dockets remotely, such as via smartphones and tablets.

O’Brien told the Post-Gazette of one case in which a juror looked up information about a party in a case the juror was involved with, with the juror learning of a settlement between the defendant in that case and a prior plaintiff.

This was done despite the fact that O’Brien had instructed jurors not to independently research the case while the members were serving on the jury.

Asked for her opinion on the matter, Lynn Marks, the executive director of the advocacy group Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts, told the Pennsylvania Record that while the temporary online civil docket ban may hamper the ability for members of the news media and others to gather information about cases while they are being litigated, “this inconvenience is outweighed by the primary interest of the judicial system – ensuring that litigants receive a fair trial.

“As more information becomes available electronically, challenges such as this will continue to arise,” Marks wrote in an emailed message. “Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts believes that a balanced approach is the best way to deal with these new challenges.”

As an aside, Marks said that judges, in prohibiting jurors from conducting their own research on the litigants in a particular case, the attorneys involved, the jurists overseeing a particular matter, and the fellow jury members, should also take care to explain precisely how Internet research and social media communication could undercut the jury’s work and waste the time of all of those involved.

A detailed explanation like this could help bolster support for O’Brien’s move, she noted.

Not everyone appears thrilled with the judge’s administrative order.

Paula Knudsen, the director of legal affairs for the Pennsylvania News Media Association, told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that the proper way to enforce court rules such as a prohibition on independent juror research is by regulating the jurors themselves, not limiting public access to widely available information.

In response to O’Brien’s comment that the case files are still available, just not online, Knudsen said that not everyone is able to get to the courthouse during the day.

“It’s difficult to get back to the judge’s chambers,” she was quoted as saying in the paper.

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