It’s the reason the legal watchdog organization CourtWatch LA got their start and the driving force behind the mission of this volunteer-based group to be observers documenting the seemingly ordinary, low-level cases highlighting the inequities of the justice system.
Rebecca Brown, a National Lawyers Guild fellow who’s worked with Court Watch LA since its inception in 2019, says the watchdog organization provides real-world glimpses of how courts operate and where they fall short. Sometimes that failure is apparent in the comments made by a judge, the dynamic between an attorney and their client, or any kind of bias that may be unspoken in the courtroom.
“At CourtWatch, we focus primarily on misdemeanor courtrooms, because we see them as such an important site where you see people who are homeless being criminalized and poverty being criminalized,” Brown told CEB. “Often we think of these big felony trials, but in misdemeanor courts you’ll see people will come in with some low-level charge and just that one charge can have a really devastating impact on your life.”
Prior to the pandemic shutdown, Court Watch LA’s group of volunteers–currently numbering over 200 members–would watch these types of cases play out sitting in the gallery of a courtroom. Instead of just just focusing on an angle for a newspaper story or a wider ranging narrative like typical journalists, Court Watch observers specialize in capturing the unvarnished quotes and minutiae that occur during the proceedings and report them straight to the group’s Twitter account.
One tweet claimed that an LA Superior Court judge racially profiled a Black attorney with cornrows, asking [if he was] ‘legitimate’.”
“One judge is refusing to dismiss charges & grant diversion per the misdemeanor directive for cases involving traffic infractions, claiming it would violate Equal Protection, b/c other people with traffic infractions don’t have the same opportunity for dismissals & diversion,” reads another tweet.
The group posts bulletin-style reviews of court proceedings they observe on their website and whatever photos they can capture inside courthouses to show the conditions of the court itself. There’s a host of online tutorials and training materials on how to be a court watcher and an open tip line for the public to share information with the group.
“It’s all about getting a more accurate picture of what a court looks like. Usually it looks different than what you would be presented with on TV or movies,” says Adrienne Wong, staff attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union and one of the founders of CourtWatch LA. “Our CourtWatchers are usually surprised their first time in if they don’t have previous exposure to criminal courts.”
Getting Things Off the Ground
The idea for CourtWatch LA came in 2019 through a collaboration between Wong and the Executive Director of the National Lawyers Guild of LA at the time, Kath Rogers. The success of previous Court Watch organizations in big cities like New York and New Orleans inspired a framework for the LA chapter, which has little overhead and a modest amount of infrastructure despite covering the legal beat in a major city.
“It was really the two of us talking about the possibility of a program that would really be an educational vehicle and opportunity for public engagement, about, in particular, misdemeanor criminalization in LA,” Wong said. “And also hopefully to provide some sort of check on the worst injustices of the system.”
Wong and Rogers were also joined by collaborators from the UC system, the ACLU, the Youth Justice Coalition, Ground Game LA and several other LA public defenders who wanted to help get the project off the ground. The group hired Brown to the National Lawyers Guild as their first paid fellow to shepherd the program’s daily operations. Her job is the product of funding from the UC Board of Regents.
Soon after it was established, Court Watch LA quickly assembled a group of scrappy volunteers from all walks of life who are passionate about the criminal justice system in LA and who have a desire to use a hands-on approach to educate themselves. Some Court Watchers are law students or recent graduates looking to get real-world knowledge about court hearings. Others are social justice activists who see the value of being inside halls of justice as opposed to just rallying on their steps. Others are retirees who are reliably able to make it to a courtroom by 8:30 am on a Tuesday.
“We have an attorney from the ACLU, who kind of helped supervise me and helps support the program, and then a couple other attorneys here and there that support the program,” Brown says. “But it’s really by and large all volunteers. We don’t really require a lot of infrastructure to operate, so we’re kind of a scrappy group, but we’re making it work.”
Pioneering During the Pandemic
Neeka Dabiri, a law student at Lewis & Clark University in Portland, has been living in LA full time since the pandemic shutdown and has been active with the Court Watch since its inception. Watching the group grow from a few people to hundreds of volunteers in less than two years has been rewarding as the group gets broader recognition and has been quoted often in mainstream media like the Los Angeles Times, La Opinion and Cal Matters, as well as legal publications including Law360, Courthouse News Service and The Daily Journal.
“The way that we can really matter and make a change in the system is if more people become aware of what we’re trying to do, and once they become aware of what we’re trying to do, they’ll become aware of the inconsistencies in the injustices in the system,” Dabiri says.
With the pandemic providing an unforeseen obstacle to their growth, Wong says Court Watch LA had to fundamentally rethink how they were going to run a program that could no longer send observers into court. The trials and tribulations of getting decent online access to court proceedings highlighted the same everyday struggle as the rest of the public during lockdown.
“We might’ve been able to get people in, but we didn’t feel super comfortable with it,” Wong said. “Knowing what we knew about the lack of protocols that were happening in the courthouse.”
However, they still had some observers in courthouses who had to be in court for one reason or another–either because it was their job or because they were being summoned to court. It was during this time that a lot of volunteers started to share disturbing tips about court operations and lack of COVID safety. One such case involved the death of Spanish-language court interpreter Sergio Cafaro in January from COVID-19. Cafaro worked at the Clara Shortridge Foltz Criminal Justice Center. He was 56.
“Mr. Cafaro’s death was preventable, and the circumstances of his infection are just one example of Los Angeles Superior Court’s dangerous COVID-19 policies,” Court Watch Los Angeles said in a press release at the time. “At 10 months into this pandemic, it is clear that Los Angeles Superior Court’s COVID-19 policies have prioritized keeping courthouses staffed and running over keeping people safe.”
Justice for Sergio
Prior to Cafaro’s death, Brown started getting contacted by a number of different court employees who were reaching out about the COVID conditions and the courthouses. Tips came in about dozens of inmates being brought into court to small lockup cells with no social distancing and poor ventilation. Brown says she was told by court staffers that courts weren’t informing people of potential exposures.
“People started finding out through Court Watch, actually, that they have been exposed to COVID,” Brown said. “Someone will reach out to us and say, ‘There’s someone in this courthouse that tested positive,’ and we would share it, and then that’s how people are finding out.” Representatives from the Los Angeles County Superior Court could not be reached as of press time.
Eventually, Brown built good relationships with court interpreters in Downtown LA, which is how Court Watch learned about Cafaro’s passing and broke the story. According to the group, the exposure that led to Cafaro’s death started in late November after a member of the public infected with COVID-19 appeared in a courtroom with symptoms, and two employees who were present later tested positive.
The group tweeted that Los Angeles Superior Court’s lax COVID-19 safety protocols led to the interpreter’s death, alleging his complications from COVID were the result of “incoherent” COVID-19 policies that punish employees for attempting to quarantine after a possible exposure. The story Court Watch broke made national headlines as health agencies continued to scramble to hold government agencies and officials accountable for public safety.
In July, after a six-month investigation, the Los Angeles County Superior Court was fined more than $25,000 by the California Occupational Safety and Health Administration after the agency found three violations related to COVID-19 safety protocols. For Brown and her organization, the fine was bittersweet, considering the loss one of the court’s beloved civil servants.
“I felt like we were yelling into the void, you know. We were publicizing this and it got some media traction with it, but there’s just no oversight of the court,” Brown said. “This $25,000 fine from the state is not a lot, but it definitely came as a relief I think to a lot of people, to finally have something happen and have someone try to hold the courts accountable.”
The tragic loss of Cafaro shed light on the importance of sharing inside information about courthouse conditions and the type of work Court Watch is doing, even during the pandemic when most journalists aren’t covering the courts in person or online, or picking up on details that could alter the the course of a court proceeding or the lives of those who participate in them.
Getting the Court Watchers Back in Session
In late July, LA County courthouses were reopened to the general public for the first time in more than a year as court officials began to loosen COVID-19 restrictions. People will no longer be required to schedule appointments to attend hearings, obtain court documents or conduct other courthouse business, according to the LA Superior Court. Social distancing requirements inside courtrooms will be lifted, but individuals must still wear face coverings such as masks.
For Court Watch, that means they’ll be able to get back to sitting in on hearings and building up their roster of trained volunteers.
“We’re just excited to get people trained up again and back into the court,” Wong said. “In the intervening period our profile was heightened a little bit because of the reporting we did on the COVID situation. Hopefully there’s both more public interest in participating in the program and a better understanding of court watchers what they’re doing in the courtroom when people see them.”
Before the pandemic, Wong says jokingly that Court Watchers would be used to getting dubious looks or questions from the court clerks who could not understand why a public proceeding would actually be visited by a member of the public.
The group continues to report on issues of importance, like monitoring how judges and prosecutors are handling directives from the new District Attorney George Gascon, or reporting on the actions of candidates for LA’s city attorney race coming up, because one of their jobs is to handle misdemeanor proceedings. “I think we’re really excited to kind of inform those important public conversations with what’s happening on the ground as we observe it,” Wong said.
Being a notable legal watchdog group is a laudable fight, but a fight nonetheless. And in an age where public advocacy feels like as much of an industry as anything, Court Watch volunteers are spurred on by nothing but the benefit of helping their community and humanizing the system.
“We don’t benefit at all apart from just helping people who need the help,” Dabiri said. “Court Watch was built to maintain and bring about human decency. And I feel like that really is our mission.”