At this point of the pandemic, there's a good chance you've seen a viral video of a Zoom court hearing. A lawyer with an errant video filter pleading with the judge that he is, in fact, not a cat. Zoombombers injecting ass-eating porn into the middle of hearing for 2020's notorious Twitter hacker. Maybe you even heard someone on the highest court in the land flush the toilet.
One of the many unforeseen consequences of COVID-19 is that many courts are now holding their hearings over Zoom. These hearings are all recorded and often streamed in public, creating a new engine for internet virality whenever something funny or unexpected happens. It has become such a common event, there's a new subreddit dedicated to Zoom Court, which now has over 12,000 subscribers.
The r/ZoomCourt subreddit features many moments that have viral potential similar to the cat filter lawyer because they are funny, shocking, or evoking schadenfreude. In one video, the judge asks if one of the people on the call actually wants to be known by their Zoom screen name, "h0e'N-g0." In another trial about a suspended driver's license, the defendant Zooms into court from the driver's seat of his car. Sometimes, the judge dismisses people on the call with some sharp remark, and the whole thing comes off as an episode of Judge Judy.
Many of the videos in the ZoomCourt subreddit feature a judge from St. Joseph county, Michigan named Jeffrey Middleton. One poster, who goes by the username Playoffasprilla, told Motherboard that Middleton's videos are the only ones he really watches.
"I think the reason people are tuning in is because of how transparent and real everything is," Playoffasprillasaid. "It's the greatest reality show that was never really meant to be a reality show."
This level of transparency is how our government is supposed to work. There are systemic inequalities built into this system still, but theoretically public scrutiny helps make sure justice is being carried out.
But while Zoom court videos may be a boon for governmental transparency (and for anyone who wants to see someone say that they are not a cat), some have concerns about the privacy of the people in them.
According to Alex Howard, director at government transparency organization Digital Democracy, these videos are helpful because the simple act of documenting something and making that documentation public is transparency. But it's also placing private citizens in a spotlight they might not want shined on them.
"A well-informed population is the one that self-governs best," Howard said. "Public records belong to the public, but the stewards and the guardians of the records also have to protect the public that is contained within them."
Judge Middleton told Motherboard the impact that this newfound internet popularity has had on court proceedings is "profound, and in some cases troubling."
Another of Howard's concerns is that many of these videos are hosted on YouTube, a private corporation that isn't intended to be a resource for government transparency, but instead a company that makes money off of selling ads against the videos users upload. It places these videos into an ecosystem that's based on virality and popularity, often without much of a thought to the people featured in the videos themselves.
"People's worst day, which is often why they're in court, shouldn't be monetized for a global audience's benefit," he said. "The platforms [that the videos are hosted on], I think, need to be thinking really carefully about how they treat this kind of content and, dare I say it, be responsible and transparent about any harms that come to people whose worst day in court gets blown up."
While many of the videos on the subreddit are harmless, some, like this video of a judge disparaging a black man who was shot at by the police, are illuminating, showing how the system can treat Black people more harshly. Another harrowing video in a domestic abuse case ends with a twist, revealing that the alleged abuser and his victim are actually Zooming from the same apartment, and he is arrested on camera. For every cat filter video there are many more that show the reality of court—it's not a place anyone ends up in for a good, happy reason.
When I reached out to Judge Middleton's office for comment, he also directed me to Michigan Supreme Court Justice Bridget McCormack. McCormack told Motherboard that being able to use Zoom to attend court hearings has been a huge benefit to the courts not just in terms of transparency, but also in terms of accessibility. Many people, like people with day jobs or who need child care, wouldn't be able to come to court otherwise.
"I think the more access the public has to see what happens in court, the more confidence the public will have in court's decisions," she said, "which frankly is, you know, pretty fundamental to enforcement of the rule of law."
McCormack pointed out that cases involving children, like custody disputes, also serve as a potential vector for a violation of privacy.
"In both abuse and neglect cases and custody cases, kids are just innocent victims of disputes between their parents," McCormack said. "That feels like another really compelling area to think about what public access means."
Howard said that historically, trials and even executions have been used as a form of entertainment for the public. The musical Chicago's entire plot is based on that premise, and as a real life example, the trial of OJ Simpson was an enormous media event, with all 134 days of the trial broadcast by Court TV. To Howard, the issue of whether these Zoom court hearings should be hosted publicly isn't all that different from similar debates in the 90s, when courts started to broadcast hearings on television.
"It's just instead of it being on our TVs, it's now on our smartphones, laptops, every screen nearby that has a connection, which is all of them," Howard said.
For Zoom court video fans, these issues aren't invisible. Playoffasprilla said that it would be prudent for courts to make better use of Zoom's features to protect the privacy of individuals.
"I also think comment sections should be removed during live videos," they said. "They are distracting and do more harm than good."
McCormack told Motherboard that around five months ago, the state of Michigan put together a task force in order to plan the best practices for using Zoom for court, and for hosting video on private platforms like YouTube. While it's too early to know what that task force will recommend, the question of how to balance the transparency of the internet with its potentiality to harm private citizens is one all states will have to grapple with.
For what it's worth, in a recent video from Judge Middleton, at the end, he addresses the YouTube chat. To put it mildly, the chat for Judge Middleton's videos are lively.
"We've started to be a popular spot for people to watch court proceedings. That's all good, we're transparent and we allow people to watch everything. But we've developed a community in chat that posts things that are grossly inappropriate," Judge Middleton said in the video. "I'm going to turn it off. You're free to watch all you want, but I'm going to turn off the live chat."