Courthouses often convey a sense of solemnity and civic importance. Judges don traditional black robes, while attorneys and litigants wear formal business attire. Signs admonish visitors “Quiet: Court in Session” to preserve the sense of decorum. But this decorum can be quickly shattered by a proceeding or trial in a high-profile case. When one or more litigants are famous, or the case involves a major news story, there is no “business as usual.” Crowds in and around the courthouse, non-stop press coverage, and information requests can be expected. Recent examples include the Johnny Depp v. Amber Heard defamation case and the trials of El Chapo, Bill Cosby, and Jodi Arias.
Preserving a Civic Right
One of the hallmarks of our Constitutional Republic is that every citizen is entitled to their day in court. This is true even if one of the parties in the case is a famous entertainer, athlete, or business leader. Or if the case involves a heinous crime, politically charged topic, or even a low-speed police pursuit of a white Ford Bronco broadcast nationwide in real-time. No matter the stakes or participants, every case will be decided in front of a judge, jury, or both, inside the walls of an American courthouse.
So what do you do when you are the judge in charge of that case? Or the administrator responsible for the smooth functioning of that courthouse? Many courts located in large metropolitan areas handle high-profile cases regularly. They have processes and procedures in place, often based on prior experience.
But high-profile cases can just as easily land in the small town court square as in the big city skyscraper. Here are a few steps judges and court managers can take the next time their court receives a high-profile case.
Freedom of the Press
“Trial of the Century,” “Media Circus,” and “Feeding Frenzy” are all terms used to describe court cases and their associated coverage. Perhaps no other factor defines a high-profile case more directly than the onslaught of media attention when a case intersects with a widely covered news story. This can result in crowds outside the courthouse, more visitors and spectators inside, and of course, more reporters and press inquiries. Courts can manage the heightened attention in several ways:
- Communication - provide clear, proactive, and frequent communication to media outlets. Ensuring that members of the press are informed of key milestones and given press passes ahead of time helps to manage expectations and creates efficiency for both the court and the media. Be sure all court employees who communicate with the press have clear direction on the information to provide and the timing for providing it.
- Media room - establish a dedicated space, either temporary or permanent, specifically for media members to work and receive briefings. It should ideally be located close to the courthouse entrance to minimize foot traffic throughout the building.
- Overflow space - set aside a multi-purpose room or additional courtroom to provide space for media members and spectators if the trial courtroom capacity is insufficient. Courts with sharing policies and flexible multi-purpose spaces may have large areas available for overflow seating.
A swarm of journalists and reporters likely means a high volume of spectators inside the courthouse and a gathering of onlookers, perhaps even protestors, outside. The nature of our adversarial judicial system means that these individuals hold opposing, perhaps passionate, views of the case and the issues surrounding it.
The judge, jury, attorneys, and other court employees must remain objective and professional to ensure fair and impartial proceedings. And court security officers must ensure a safe environment for members of the court, the press, and the public inside and outside the courthouse. Courts can employ several methods to address the increased security demands of a high-profile case:
- Access Control - additional manpower around the courthouse can help maintain order in the vicinity, including parking enforcement, crowd control, and perimeter security. Courthouses with comprehensive camera systems and robust exterior security features are well-positioned to manage extra attention.
- Screening - sufficient manpower (and hopefully space) must also be available to screen all members of the public and the press, and depending on court policy, employees as well. The remainder of the court docket may need to be adjusted around high-profile proceedings to avoid overcrowding at the courthouse entrance.
- Design - some of the most critical advantages for managing a high-profile case can be gained years in advance through proper courthouse design solutions anticipating crowds and civil unrest. Also, separate circulation zones for prisoners, judges, juries, and the public are necessary.
There are many other critical considerations for managing a high-profile case, such as the logistics of sequestering a jury for days or weeks, assembling a trial management team, and criteria for selecting a judge to manage the case. The National Center for State Courts developed a comprehensive set of resources for this purpose, including helpful checklists for each phase of the case.
Whether your court is a regular venue for high-profile cases or your next one will be your first, a well-designed courthouse and a proactive communication strategy are among the most useful tools you can employ to ensure a fair and efficient trial.