‘All conversations’ monitored in Washington Co. Court

Washington Co. courtroom signs warn of monitored conversations

May 2, 2013
One of the signs that appear outside the courtrooms in Washington County Courthouse. - Barbara Miller / Observer-Reporter Order a Print

Signs posted this week drawing attention to electronic monitoring of “all conversations” in Washington County courtrooms have some people wondering what that means for private communications between lawyer and client.

Microphones in the courtroom are part of a digital recording system that is designed to replace shorthand or stenography, which President Judge Debbie O’Dell Seneca called a “dying art.”

The digital system, purchased from the ForThe Record, part of the Melbourne (Australian) IT Group, cost between $70,000 and $75,000 said Tim McCullough, district deputy court administrator. The firm has a service branch in Beaver County.

The system covers six courtrooms in the Washington County Courthouse plus juvenile court, the support hearing room and child custody hearings.

Although Allegheny County has a recording system, it has not posted signs. Digital recording also is done in Beaver, Greene and Delaware county courtrooms, the president judge said.

Pennsylvania courts are striving for a unified system that would allow another reporter to produce a certified transcript of courtroom proceedings if a court reporter would become ill or die.

Blane Black, president of the Washington County Bar Association, said he learned at a judicial candidates’ forum Tuesday night of the new signs and that he and bar association Vice President David DiCarlo met with the president judge after Wednesday’s Law Day observance.

The confidentiality of communications between an attorney and a client is enshrined in both the state and United States constitutions, and the microphones on tables where lawyers are seated with their clients are part of the recording system.

Putting a hand over the microphone may not do the trick.

“When the green light is on, the mikes are on,” O’Dell Seneca said. “All the mikes can be muted. “Touch the green light and it goes off.”

The bar association has planned a June 5 seminar on the system. Black and other members of the bar will participate in a behind-the-scenes tour beforehand.

“There was a big concern from the criminal defense bar. If there are allegations that people are listening, we take that very, very seriously,” Black said.

“There’s a question of who’s monitoring the monitor, so we are going to discuss that with members of the court. We want to learn how the system is intended to operate and that they use it properly.”

Black has seen a computerized recording system in use in federal bankruptcy court for many years.

In Washington County, as in other courts, the computerized records will take up less space than paper transcripts and save storage costs.

“I’d like to do electronic filing. I’d like to go paperless. Look at this office,” O’Dell Seneca said, gesturing to sheaves of documents. “Some people resist change. It’s time.”

Barbara S. Miller covers politics, Washington County government and a variety of other topics for the Observer-Reporter. She is a graduate of Washington & Jefferson College, majoring in English and history. Follow her on Twitter @reporterbarb.

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