Organizing a Court Watch Party

I. The Need for a Court Watch 

  • Monitoring the condition of women’s rights in the judicial system has long been an essential component of feminist activism. The treatment of rape survivors, battered women, and divorce/custody cases in the courts has necessitated our constant vigilance. And while the last two decades have brought pockets of improvement in the conduct of police and lawyers, the courtroom–controlled by judges and magistrates–continues to be rife with sexism.
  • Now we need even more vigilance–aggressive and visible evidence to show judges, magistrates, jurors, and anti-choice operators that the vast majority of voters will not tolerate infringement on the right of women to choose abortion.
  • The domestic terrorism conducted by “Operation Rescue,” the “Pro-Life Action League,” “Right to Life” and other groups has confronted criminal and civil court judges with yet a new form of attack on women’s rights.
  • While they blockade clinics, assault patients, trespass, destroy property, and threaten the lives of clinic staff, these terrorist groups have claimed moral, political, and free speech legitimacy for their lawbreaking activities. Moreover, the anti-choice forces have attempted to convert for their defense the legal innovations used by peace and civil rights groups. Recently they have begun to use the “necessity” or “duress” defense first applied by anti-nuclear protesters; that is, they are claiming a legal right to enter a facility against the law to “save lives.”.
  • By compiling and disseminating information on actual court procedures and cases, the pro-choice court watch group can reveal to the community the underlying power bids, hypocrisy, and intimidation of women in the legal system. Public education will also give the lie to the false moral claims of the “wrong to life” groups, and even highlight the Orwellian lengths to which the anti-choice zealots will go to hide the vicious nature of their attacks on clinics and patients.
  • The community must understand that even those anti-abortion leaders who personally refrain from direct physical assaults provoke violence by their passive-aggressive behavior. They leave others (usually the police) no option but to use force to remove them from blockaded sidewalks and doorways of clinic facilities. The anti-choice organizations teach their members psychological warfare tactics designed to provoke fear, anger, and violence in others: taunts, name-calling, no-contact physical intimidation. When the antis are prosecuted, the intimidation continues via their legal counsel against injured parties who take the witness stand, and via biased rulings by judges.

II. The Goal of the Court Watch Party 

The highest priority for a Court Watch Program is to focus public attention on the violence, deception, and illegal behavior that accompanies the clinic attacks. Once that is accomplished, the second priority is to educate and place political pressure on judges and elected officials who have neglected to punish lawbreakers for fear of antagonizing friends and anti-abortion voters.
Following are the key objectives:

A. At the Clinic
Action: Gather evidence that will enable you to provide valid information to the courts and to the public without your becoming physically involved in the clinic attack.

  •  Evidence may be recorded by phone camera, audio tape, video, still camera, personal diary or log. Get to know clinic management and let them know you. Set up a mutually helpful relationship. Confer with them regarding the usual pattern of attack: time, method, entryway.
  • Identify those in photos with the cooperation of the clinic manager and others. Record the number of appearances of these people at clinic attacks. Compile files.
  • Observe who among them does press relations. Does that person set up the marching and singing for benefit of TV cameras? Record the methods they use .
  • Observe how they approach moving autos with women in them.
  • Observe and record the treatment of women pedestrians by those who are trying to recognize clinic patients and target them for harassment.
  • Observe and record the spiel of the “sidewalk counselor”.
  • Have one of your members play the role of a clinic patient, and record the harassment she receives.
  • Document the estimated public cost of each clinic attack. The number of sheriffs or police personnel present, the number of hours of direct police time and related paperwork time, the rental of buses to transport the arrestees, the time of court and jail employees and prosecution staff. The salary and hourly wages of public employees should be available from the relevant government offices –, either through supportive administrators or your state Freedom of

B. At the Court House 
Action: Monitor the arraignments of the arrested anti-abortion attackers and gather data for future trials.

  • Record names, addressees, dates, and charges filed. You can find this information in the office of the Court Clerk. Analyze the information. Do the addresses suggest a pattern that might show a significant relationship of attackers to a certain anti-choice group, a sect or church, or other organization?
  • Compile data about repeat offenders, including their affiliation with anti-choice activities and associations. Note especially any pattern of employment suggesting that a corporation is supporting their clinic attack activities.

C. Before the trial
Action: Track pre-trial motions and the judge’s disposition of motions.

  • The use of defenses and attempts to suppress evidence at this stage will be vital to eventual outcomes. Record statements by the attorneys and the judges. Befriend the assistant prosecuting attorney, who can explain the events and keep you informed.

Action: Stay informed of similar cases elsewhere.

  • You can track this information via on-line legal research services, such as LEXIS . As other cases are decided, this communicate this developing case law should be communicated to the assistant city attorney or county prosecutor who may be too busy to research arguments and citations.

D. At the trial 
Action: Attend trials with a visible presence for abortion rights.

  • Your group might all wear the same color clothing or armbands — choose your own symbolism. Sit in a group. Designate one person to handle press statements in case of media coverage and interviews. Make sure this person has been properly authorized to speak for your chapter. Those attending should take books to pass the time and pads to take notes. However, a judge may ask the bailiff to order you not to read or take notes. If this happens, you should follow those instructions. Avoid discussing abortion rights in the vicinity of the courtroom or hallways.

Action: Record and compile statements about the behavior of the judge.

  • Observe what happens before court is “in session” as well as during. Document statements and non-verbal behaviors by the judge with careful notes (to compare later with newspaper reports and transcript). accompanied by non-verbal behavior notations. Smiles, hand motions, friendly jokes and handshakes, emphasis on religious titles, whether defendants are given formal or informal treatment — all are indications of potential bias. This also applies where there is different treatment of the attorneys — for example, if the defense attorney is treated respectfully by the judge, but the prosecutor is not.

Action: Record and compile information about anti-choice people in the audience.

  • One or more of your court watch team should refrain from identifying with the group. She should sit near or among the anti-choice gallery with a book and a small, concealed notebook in which to record conversations, names, observations. She can present herself as sympathetic to their cause in order to engage in social talk and, ask questions such as “Who is that minister? “What do you do for a living?” “How many are there in your group?” Such questions may result in further personal information that will be of help in the future.

Action: Track conviction and sentencing.

  • Record the dates, names, and specifics of each sentence (jail term, community service, counseling, restitution). If a sentence includes community service, track the activities assigned and the schedule of completion. If a sentence is suspended, track subsequent arrests and whether the full sentence is imposed after the subsequent arrest (it should be).
  • This information may be obtained by taking notes in the courtroom and from the court record of the trial. Keep your own directory of the “friendly” administrators and clerks to talk to once you have identified them. Make sure that only one designated person on the courtwatch committee contacts the official, or you may become “bothersome” and therefore unwelcome.

III. Personnel and Jobs to be done 
The Court Watch Project needs people with a variety of backgrounds and skills that may be used in a number of ways to perform several types of work.

A. Useful professional backgrounds

  • Legal: — lawyers, law clerks, secretaries, paralegals, ex-court reporters
  • Press relations/publicity/publications: — reporters,publishers, PR people, journalists, writers for letter campaigns
  • Medical: — nurse’s aides, physician’s assistants
  •  Political: — Republican and Democratic party affiliates who know all about how judges are selected.
  • Theater: — actors of all ages and both genders
  • Media: — people skilled in using video and audio recording equipment
  • Secretaries:s — people good at communications, record keeping, mailings

B. Skills Needed and Requirements

  • The project needs patient people with flexible schedules who can sit in court all day if necessary, who are willing to show up for a hearing or trial and discover it was rescheduled five minutes ago.
  • The project needs inquisitive, tactful folk with clerical skills to deal with (and research) the Clerk of Court’s records during the day.
  • The project needs creative people who are curious and are able to link facts to produce a whole picture.
  • The project needs people who are willing to do drudge work. For example, this committee may require its own news-clipping files regarding legislation, trials and hearings related to the abortion issue.

IV. Preparation and Training

A. Preparation — What you need

  1. A jurisdictional map or explanation from the Clerk of Court in order to become familiar with the jurisdictions of district and circuit courts.
  2. A list of clinics in each jurisdiction.
  3. Regarding elected judges: for each oneFor each elected judge, the voting boundaries and the date of the next election for the office.
  4. Information on applicable laws on criminal trespass, malicious destruction of property, and assault. In addition, the maximum punishments that can be imposed. If local judges are known to use “community service” as part of the sentence in some cases, ask the librarian to help identify community agencies that have supervised offenders.
  5. A file system that tracks offenders. Establish this so you can access under each name the arrest dates, locations, charges, and other identifying data.
  6. Hint: The use of a simple, flat-file PC database program with mass update and screen modification features eases this task.
  7. A group of pro-choice supporters who can be available, even on short notice during the hourswhile court is in session. As long as the Court Watch Project members are well briefed and their record keeping is standardized, the same persons need not be monitoring all steps in a case.
  8. Establish a checklist of the types of information that should be recorded at arraignments, motions, and trials. Also include special attention to be given to and notes made on: references to abortion, treatment of women, references to clinic services, and religion.
  9. The telephone number of Operation Rescue’s “hot line”. Clinic attack dates and preparations may be announced there. Make regular calls. Establish liaison with your chapter’s Clinic Defense Task Force or other patient escort groups, and be prepared to alert clinics when you learn that they will be attacked.

B. Training and personnel assignments

Protocol: Train all members in your project’s courtroom protocol: For example, you should maintain silence while court is in session; rise for the entrance of the judges; wear suffragist white (or other identifiable ID that is not offensive to the judge); refrain from gesturing and making remarks about the defendants and attorneys and from discussions of abortion rights (or the case that is being tried) in the vicinity of the courtroom.
Suggestion: If there is no attorney or legal advisor on your project, ask a supportive attorney friend to brief your group.

Assignments/ responsibility: Assign people to:

  1. Check on court dates and report by phone to group members so that they mark their calendars well in advance.
  2. Act as a representative of your group if press should ask questions or if you wish to feed something to the press (make sure the person is properly authorized to speak for NOW by your chapter).
  3. Rally court watchers by phone a few days ahead of court date.
  4. Maintain a press clipping file.
  5. Research court records

V. Accessing Court Files and Other Public Information

A. Accessing Court Files

Court legal files are public documents unless specifically restricted by action of a judge (sealing the record) or by statute or supreme court rule. Most files are not restricted. Files, however, are not always easily obtained. Unless you know what you want to see, court clerks may not be inclined to help you find a file. Make sure you identify the correct court (for example, municipal court, district court, etc.) Minor criminal matters are generally sent to the lower or city courts for arraignment and trial. In some cities there is a unified court system handling all levels of criminal charges.

In order to obtain a file, you generally must have:

  1. The date of the incident
  2. The time
  3. The charge

However, in some court systems you can locate a file by knowing the full name of the defendant. Each court division sets its own rules for permitting people who are not officially connected to a case to look at a legal file. While the files are indeed public information, the judges and court administrators can set restrictions as to how one identifies a file and where and when it can be viewed.

B. How To Find Out The Ground Rules for Accessing Files

  1. You may visit the court that has the case you want to examine. Identify the case or the defendant as best you can, and see what happens.
  2. If the counter clerks tell you that cannot see a file, ask to talk to the court administrator. Remember: YOU are NOT required to identify yourself or to give a reason for your interest in reading the file.
  3. Call the court administrator in advance of your visit. Explain which files you want to see, and ask for directions as to the least disruptive way you can do this. You If you do this, you will run the risk that your request to review the file will be intercepted when the case is hot and someone wishes to keep it out of public view. You will be given a carefully prepared excuse that the file is being worked on and is not available.
  4. Caution: You should notice whether clerks seem to have written rules to which they refer, instructing them how to respond to requests for file review. You may be required to supply the defendant’s date of birth or the court case number.
  5. If all else fails, invoke your state’s Freedom of Information Act and file a formal demand for the documents. In a state which that has a FOIA, each court should have a set of directions for filing under the FOIA which must be supplied to you. Under this law you must usually pay reasonable costs for copying the information and wait a set period of time (usually several days) to receive it.

What to look for in a court file:

  1. The original charge and statute citation, which tells you exactly what crime the defendant has been charged with committing
  2. A summons to appear in court, which tells you the dates that hearings are set
  3. A notice of appearance by the defense attorney, which will give you the name of the attorney who is representing the defendants
  4. These items should give sufficient data to identify the offender and the status of the case. As the case develops, court orders, motions, and added hearing notices all will be added to the file.

What to take/wear:

  • When you go to the clerk’s office, try to look professional and official. Bbe sure to take a clipboard with notepad, and if possible carry them in a briefcase. briefcase — in other words, try to look professional and official. But remember, you may have to sit on the floor due to lack of office space, so be dressed for it. It is also possible you may access the file but not be given space to work or sit, but usually there is some place available–perhaps an attorney/client conference room not presently in use. You may be told you cannot use pens for your records-making. Accordingly, also take some lead pencils you like.

VI. Supporting Victims

Victims of criminal trespass and assault will need the committee’s encouragement to stay actively involved in prosecution. The court process will drag out over months or possibly years, and victims will naturally want to move ahead with their lives.

Having a committee member assigned to stay in contact with a victim and provide moral support is a positive investment. Calls and messages of support are especially appreciated before and after testifying in court. The victim can also be made aware of her rights to restitution, notification, and compensation as may be provided under your state law.

If your project can attract the pro bono services of a feminist attorney, the victim may want to consider a civil suit against the attackers. The combination of heavy criminal fines and high civil awards will certainly form a strong deterrent to even the most zealous anti-abortion lawbreakers.

VII. How to Educate the Public About Court Events

  • After any significant victory, send out a press release and hold a press conference to announce the success of your committee’s work. Or, if there is a negative development, inform the media what you will be doing to combat it.
  • In most communities, letters to the editor are widely read. Be sure to comment knowledgeably on the conduct or results of court events; have several different writers rotating to increase the number of letters published.
  • Get to know the editorial writers of your local papers; send them details the reporter may have missed and encourage the paper to take a stand against clinic attacks.
  • If you are in a television market, be sure to develop visual press events. Picket the courtroom of a sexist judge with catchy “slogan” signs; demonstrate outside the office of the attorney for the antis. Expose a phony abortion clinic or “pregnancy counseling center” run by the anti-abortion groups in your area–show the connections to the clinic attacks.

VIII. Political Action; Influencing Judicial Conduct; Filing Judicial Tenure Complaints

  • After the trial, writer to the judge to let him/her know the committee or chapter’s opinion of the judge’s conduct and/or to request explanation of the judge’s actions. Praise as strongly as you criticize!
  • Work to re-elect or remove from office judges, prosecutors, and other officials according to their conduct. Make sure that the Political Action Committees that donate to political campaigns receive a copy of your position. Better yet, consider starting a chapter Political Action Committee. Information is available from National NOW.
  • Find out if your state has a constitutional or other provision for the investigation of complaints against judges. The Judicial Tenure Commission, Judicial Conduct Board, or similar agency, will have a form you can request. Your notarized complaint should cite specific violations of judicial ethics or law.
  • The attached SAMPLE shows what such a complaint might contain. The investigation will likely be confidential, and the outcome only known if the committee decides to remove or suspend the judge.

IX. Glossary of Useful Terms

  • For additional information, refer to: Black’s Law Dictionary, 3d Edition, the primary source for these definitions.
  • arraign: To bring a prisoner to the bar of the court to answer the matter charged upon him in the indictment. In criminal practice, the arraignment of a prisoner consists of calling upon him by name, and reading to him the indictment and demanding of him whether he be guilty or not guilty, and entering his plea.
  • bailiff: One whom some authority, care, guardianship, or jurisdiction is delivered, committed, or intrusted. One who is appointed as keeper, protector, or guardian. A court attendant.
  • defendant: The person defending or denying; the party against whom relief or recovery is sought in an action or suit. In common usage, this term is applied to the party put upon his defense or summoned to answer a charge or complaint, in any species of action, civil or criminal.
  • hearing: The term is broad enough to include judicial examination of issue between the parties whether of law or of fact.
  • Sometimes used to mean the same as “trial,” including the introduction of the evidence, the argument of the solicitors, and the decree of the chancellor (judge).
  • The hearing of the arguments of the counsel for the parties upon the pleading, or pleading and proofs; corresponding to the trial if an action at law.
  • plaintiff: A person who brings an action; the party who complains or sues in a personal action and is so named on the record.
  • Plea plea In Equity: A special answer showing or relying upon one or more things as a cause why the suit should be either dismissed or delayed or barred. The first pleading on the part of the defendant– the answer which the defendant in an action at law makes to the plaintiff’s declaration, and in which he sets up matter of fact as defense, thus distinguished from a demurrer, which interposes objections on grounds of law.
  • pleading: The formal allegations by the parties of their respective claims and defenses, for the judgement of the court. The individual allegations of the respective parties to action at common law, proceeding from them alternately, in the order and under the distinctive names following: the plaintiff’s declaration; the defendant’s plea; the plaintiff’s replication; the defendant’s rejoinder; the plaintiff’s surrejoinder; the defendants rebutter; the plaintiff’s surrebutter, after which they have no distinctive names.
  • proof: In civil process, a sufficient reason for assenting to the truth of a juridical proposition by which a party seeks either to maintain his own claim or to defeat the claim of another.
  • trial: The examination of cause, civil or criminal, before a judge who has jurisdiction over it, according to the laws of the land.
  • Strict definition in criminal procedure: the proceedings in open court after the pleading are finished and the prosecution is otherwise ready, down to and including the rendition of the verdict.
  • Some trials have juries. Others don’t. A trespass case may be decided by the judge.
  • venue: A neighborhood, place, or county in which an injury is declared to have been done, or fact declared to have happened. Also – the geographical division in which an action or prosecution is brought for trial, and which is to furnish the panel of jurors. To “change the venue ” is to transfer the cause for trial to another county or district.

X. What can we accomplish with a Court Watch?
A Court Watch Project can make a real difference in the way women are treated in your community. You can change the judicial biases against women in a very real way by simply exposing them to public view. A, with the result that anti-abortion terrorists will be treated like the lawbreakers they are, and women will be more likely to get fair treatment in divorce and custody situations. And you can make an even more lasting change by replacing biased judges with judges who will apply the law fairly to everyone. Good luck!

Sample Complaint
(this is based on Michigan law — fill in your own state law as appropriate)
[full name]_________________________________________, acting as President of the
______________Chapter of NOW, says the following upon information and belief:
CANON TWO of the Michigan Canons of Judicial Conduct states:
“A Judge Should Avoid Impropriety and the Appearance of Impropriety in All His Activities.”
“A Judge should not allow his family, social or other relationships to influence his conduct or judgement.”
Judge _________________’s action was not consistent with this Canon when he chose to sit in the case of The People v. _________et al. (name of defendant), in the District Court for ______________County, File No._________through_________and_________. He personally knew two of the defendants.
The impropriety of his action was compounded by his expressed favorable view of them as minsters. The appearance of impropriety in this case where he personally knew some of the defendants was greatly compounded when, contrary to the other Judges in the county, he ruled that he would listen to the claim of necessity defense. No other Judge in the District Courts serving County have allowed that defense in cases invoking similar factual situations.
The Judge’s statements which follow are from pages _______&_______of the Certified Court Record in People v._______________ [name of case]:
“THE COURT: All right, well these are, these are tough cases. They are going to be tough cases to try because of the nature of the, of the dispute and the nature of the individuals who are bringing the dispute. I recognize a number of the people on the list who are leaders in various social endeavors. I recognize a couple of ministers on there that are people who I have worked with in various social things like substance abuse. I see one individual who runs a local substance abuse treatment center. These are not criminals but people motivated by their strong moral beliefs, religious beliefs if you will…”
Should Judge ___________ seek to justify his actions and statements on the basis that those defendants were ministers, not that they were “people who I have worked with ,” it is equally a violation. There is not one standard for judging ministers and another for other defendants. After Jimmy Swaggart and Jim Bakker it should go without saying that being a minister is not of itself proof of the absence of wrongdoing.
Equal justice under the law is a fundamental tenet of American law. Individuals in our society are not to be accorded preferential treatment because of their religious beliefs, occupations, or acquaintance with a judge. Judge_______________________ should have recused himself when he found that he was unwilling to judge the defendants on their actions but rather on their religious beliefs.


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