Fiona Apple has always been a stalwart for the alternative and radical, imbuing her music with powerful vulnerability and a skeptical gaze. For the past two years, she’s focused this energy on the Prince George’s County court system of Maryland as a virtual court watcher.
She has used this role to help individuals who are jailed while awaiting trial to receive medical care, file civil rights lawsuits, and more. But now, Apple said the court system is trying to strip her—and other court watchers like her—of their constitutional right to observe the courtroom.
The Importance Of Online Court Watchers
The right of access to courtroom proceedings and records is implicit and has been upheld by the Supreme Court First Amendment of the Constitution. Court watchers act as the voice for arrested and jailed individuals, observing court proceedings to maintain accountability. When the COVID-19 pandemic shut down courtrooms, this access was maintained via Zoom live streams.
As an online court watcher, Apple has observed prosecutors mocking defendants for not having enough money for their bond. “I’m me, and I’m not that out of touch to think that you should sh*t on somebody for not having 50 bucks. Welcome to the f*cking world, lady,” she said in a Twitter thread posted by civil rights attorney Scott Hechinger (Apple is not on social media).
She has also witnessed many individuals being jailed indefinitely on pretrial. Pretrial services, Apple explained, can override a judge’s order of release, meaning that even if a judge releases a detainee before trial, they still have to stay in jail until their trial date.
Despite the office’s significant power, Apple said, “they have no transparency. We don’t even know what they’re made up of. Who are their employees? How are their employees qualified?”
Court watchers can help those detained pretrial file civil lawsuits, receive life-saving medication, address legal costs, and more. This support helps detainees stay afloat because, as Apple said, “it’s not just an inconvenience.”
The System Sticks To You
“If you get held pretrial,” Apple said, “you’re traumatized. And it’s not just you.” She described the cyclical nature of being detained, including its effects on children or elderly relatives under a detainee’s care. It can result in job and housing loss.
“The next time you have a court date, you don’t get the notice. Then, they tell you your failure to appear makes you a flight risk, and they keep you in jail another time. Every time you touch the system, it sticks to you,” Apple said.
The affidavits and declarations written by court watchers help fight against indefinite detention. “We said what we saw to support the plaintiffs,” she explained. “These plaintiffs have sued pretrial services and some judges in Prince George’s County. What do you think happened when that lawsuit dropped? They took our Zoom access away.”
We Can’t Hold Them Accountable
Apple went on to explain how the Prince George’s County court system has hindered or altogether rescinded courtroom access. While an audio feed is available, it’s largely unintelligible. The public and press also no longer have access to the contact information of the lawyers in court.
“Why would they take this access away right when we try to hold them accountable?” Apple said. “What would you think if a cop walked towards you and took off their body camera? What do you think it makes us feel like when they take away our Zoom access? We can’t observe.”
“It really seems like they’re retaliating against us,” she continued. “And if they’re retaliating against us, what stupid asshole babies, huh?”
Apple’s Call To Action
“What we can do as court watchers is we can be the squeaky wheel,” Apple said. “I’m just hoping that the audience that receives this will care and maybe have some ideas, but at least not get kept in the dark about this because that’s what they want. I don’t know exactly what to do except to keep court watching and spread information.”
“I think about all those people; there are thousands of people in there, having their lives upended because pretrial is not on their sh*t. Because the loved one can’t afford to get out. Because they got forgotten.”
“Anytime you are experiencing any discomfort, just imagine what that would be like. If you didn’t have the luxury of being sick or sad outside of a cage with no help, being treated like you’re not even human. Please care. Please care about this.”
You can join the court watchers’ fight, too. Court watch programs vary by state, so you’ll need to search for programs in your specific area. If there are none available, you can attend a CourtWatch Volunteer Orientation held weekly on Wednesdays to learn how to start a CW program of your own. The orientation is led by the program Fiona Apple is a part of, Courtwatch PG.
“There is an entity trying to keep you all unaware of what’s going on behind closed, barred doors,” Apple warned. But court watchers devoted to fairness, transparency, and equality are fighting every day to keep those doors open.
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