A few weeks after the verdict in the Kyle Rittenhouse trial, Michelle Garra signed up to volunteer with Court Watch PG, a Maryland-based organization that trains people to monitor trials to keep judges and prosecutors accountable.
Following the proceedings closely, Garra was particularly disturbed by how the judge operated, she said.
“It was surreal watching the judge coddle him like that. I’ve been in court, and they don’t treat people like that,” she said.
Garra, 50, asked herself before she reached out to become a court watcher, “If a high-profile case could play out this way, then what are judges doing when no one is watching?”
Rittenhouse was acquitted of fatally shooting two people in Kenosha, Wisconsin, during racial justice protests last year. While they were not considered misconduct, the temperament and behavior of Circuit Judge Bruce Schroeder, who presided over the trial, drew scrutiny, mainly because some said he appeared to have a soft and lenient stance toward Rittenhouse.
Interest in organizations like Court Watch PG, which train volunteers to observe both real and virtual court proceedings and report problematic practices by judges and prosecutors, has risen since the Rittenhouse trial as more people cite concerns about bias in courts. While the methods of reporting vary by organization, most use the compiled data to alert the public about issues and sound the alarm to officials, among other things.
“All kinds of injustice happens in empty courtrooms where no one is watching,” said Carmen Johnson, Court Watch PG’s director.
Johnson said people from as far away as Montana and Idaho have asked it how to court-watch in the last few weeks. The organization collects data on problematic patterns by judges and prosecutors and makes its findings public in reports and accountability letters to officials and through grassroots awareness campaigns on social media.
“This is a way people can feel empowered,” she said. “Keeping a watch keeps a check on those with the most power in the courtroom.”
How watching keeps tabs on judges
Court Watch NOLA, which launched in 2007, is one of the oldest court watching programs in the country. It not only monitors criminal courts in New Orleans but has also helped create several court watch programs around the country, including in Miami; St. Louis; Richmond, Virginia; and New Haven, Connecticut.
The program, which started with just 40 volunteers, now has over 160, who observed 716 court sessions in three courts last year. According to the National Registry of Exonerations, which documents proven wrongful convictions, Orleans Parish has the highest per capita rate of proven wrongful convictions of any jurisdiction in the country.
The New Orleans organization felt ripples of the Rittenhouse trial as more potential volunteers called, said Simone Levine, the group’s executive director.
“You need watchdogs,” Levine said. “The main problem that we see with criminal courts is there’s a huge difference between insiders and outsiders. The insiders are always trying to keep the outsiders out, so we educate the outsiders on what really happens in criminal court so that they can take the courts back.”
In step with similar programs, Court Watch NOLA trains volunteers to watch judges, prosecutors and defense attorneys for any constitutional rights violations, victims’ rights or ethical rule violations, and inefficiency, among other problems.
The volunteers enter their notes and observations into the organization’s database, which produces a public report complete with recommendations and pinpoints problematic patterns.
Judicial misconduct has particularly come to light with the renewed criticism of the criminal justice system after the murder of George Floyd.
A Reuters investigation last year found more than 1,500 cases from 2008 through 2019 in which judges “resigned, retired or were publicly disciplined following accusations of misconduct,” Reuters reported, adding, “In addition, reporters identified another 3,613 cases from 2008 through 2018 in which states disciplined wayward judges but kept hidden from the public key details of their offenses, including the identities of the judges themselves.”
Nine of 10 judges were allowed to return to the bench after they were sanctioned for misconduct despite having violated judicial ethics rules or breaking laws, including lying to state officers and making racist statements, Reuters found.
While many systems still shield judges from accountability, most judicial positions are elected, so there are mechanisms to remove problematic judges, Levine said. But the people have to observe and keep tabs from inside courtrooms, she said.
Court watching organizations have relied heavily on one another for training and guidance, and they continue to pay it forward by helping more groups start up.
A court watching program was still blooming in Milwaukee when the Rittenhouse trial, which unfolded less than 40 miles away, fired up new urgency for a local group to launch an initiative that monitors trials as quickly as possible.
What was televised was very different from what most Black parents have experienced, said Keisha Robinson, the deputy director of Black Leaders Organizing for Communities, a nonprofit community organization in Milwaukee, who had two young sons go through the criminal justice system.
Before the trial, Robinson was unsure that her group could get its court watching program running in the next few months, but now, with the help of Court Watch PG, which is training court watchers, she is determined to have it going by February.
“We saw justice working for a Caucasian male, but if it was a Black male, we wouldn’t have seen so much effort by the judge to help the defendant,” she said.
Who are the court watchers?
Chicago Votes, a nonprofit organization that works to increase youth political engagement, began a court watching program one year ago and has already enlisted about 230 volunteers, ages 17 to 75.
Jen Dean, a co-deputy director, said that volunteers sign up for a slew of reasons but that for most, the issue has hit close to home in some way. Many have loved ones who were sentenced unfairly or harshly by judges, and others have been victims themselves of crimes like domestic violence and are court watching to make sure judges are being fair, she said.
Volunteers are given evaluation forms that give voters qualitative data to help inform them for the next judicial election in Cook County, Illinois, which is second to Orleans Parish, Louisiana in proven wrongful convictions per capita.
As racial injustices continue to be protested, the issue has become personal for many of the nation’s youths, who are quickly becoming the newest court watchers, Dean said.
“One of the largest goals of this program is to educate young people on the system so they have the tools and knowledge needed to dismantle it,” she said.
Tania Mattos, the director of advocacy and policy for Court Watch NYC, which launched in 2018, said more people than ever before, 175, registered for its most recent training session. Mattos said that while the Rittenhouse verdict may have contributed, the bump was largely attributed to unsafe conditions at New York City’s Rikers Island jail complex.
While the volunteers come from “all walks of life,” she said, a majority are in their 20s and their 30s, with most joining after the Black Lives Matter movement took off.
Volunteers show up in court or log in for virtual hearings wearing bright yellow T-shirts so they “signal to judges that we’re there, and at times it can persuade them, because they know they’re being watched,” she said.
Michelle Garra is still training with Court Watch PG and looks forward to getting into the courtroom soon.
“The system is unfair, and moreso to certain groups,” she said. “But watching and keeping a close eye is one small but powerful way to do something about it.”