A critical court hearing in Donald Trump’s Hail Mary attempt to prove election fraud descended into a technical difficulties clownshow because a teleconference line operated by AT&T was overloaded, causing the hearing to be delayed. When the hearing in U.S. District Court for Pennsylvania’s Middle District resumed, the technical difficulties continued, with attorneys frequently cutting out, having trouble unmuting, and coming in through garbled telephone lines.
Anyone hoping to use the dial-in and follow along with the proceeding, and the fate of American democracy, witnessed the much-hyped legal armageddon degenerating into a technical clown show.
While state and local governments and the U.S. Congress have largely succeeded in moving important hearings to Zoom or enterprise-level video chat services, and have figured out how to simulcast them on YouTube or another video platform for hundreds or thousands of watchers, this particular court hearing stuck to antiquated and clearly unreliable technology.
Soon after the hearing started, the teleconference line went down. The court posted a notice on its website: “The court is aware of the telephone problem. AT&T is the custodian of the call, and we are working feverishly to restore access.” Eventually, the hearing was re-started on another line. The new hearing line had a significant period of silence and it, too, was plagued with poor audio quality and garbled connections.
Late last week, the court announced that only the “attorneys of record” would be allowed in the courtroom due to COVID-19 concerns. This means that some ancillary attorneys were calling in. This led to lines like this being announced by U.S. District Court Judge Matthew Brann: “We’re having some problems hearing you,” followed by some whispering and scuffling. “As you know, virtual arguments have some difficulties you can appreciate.”
“We’re having maybe some difficulty hearing you and I don’t know what we can do about it. Maybe you’re moving around too much,” someone—it was impossible to tell who—interjected at one point while a lawyer for the state of Pennsylvania—it was impossible to tell who—was making an argument.
“I don’t think so,” the lawyer shot back.
“Try not to move. I’m not moving at all,” the original interjector responded, sounding pretty clear.
The technical difficulties made it extremely difficult for anyone to follow along; it was difficult to tell who was talking at any given moment, what they were saying, or what their arguments were. Much of this has been solved by technologies like Zoom and live video broadcasting, where it’s obvious who is speaking, and where audio quality is higher than standard phone lines.
It didn’t have to be like this, but antiquated regulations in courtrooms that prevent recording helped lead to this farce. In this case, democracy literally hangs in the balance. In its press release announcing how people could listen to the hearing, the court said that it had set up a separate media room for 40 people. In this room, no one was allowed to record audio or video: “ANY AUDIO OR VIDEO RECORDING IS BANNED FROM ANYWHERE, INCLUDING THE MEDIA ROOM. VIOLATORS ARE SUBJECT TO SANCTIONS. Video and audio broadcast are also prohibited.” This rule makes it illegal for me to even show you how bad the audio quality was.
Some of these anti-recording regulations have been challenged in court, and have in some cases been found to be unconstitutional.
When people ask what happened during this potentially very important court hearing, anyone who wasn’t there will probably have to say “I don’t know.”
“That’s all I have to say, your honor. I hope you heard it all,” a lawyer defending the sanctity of the vote concluded at one point.
Greg Walters contributed reporting.