Accountability, Communication, and Education: Three ways the Pennsylvania Judiciary Can Use the Internet to Connect and Build Trust
Constance Hope Long, Winner of PMC's 2022 Law Student Writing Competition
CONSTANCE HOPE LONG(1)
“I literally have covid. And because there is absolutely no way to contact anybody about my court date I have to go into the building with covid and speak to somebody. So to make it clear tomorrow, December 22nd of 2021 I will walk into that building knowing I have covid cause there is no clear way to contact anybody to move my date or alert to my situation. You would think with covid spikes it would be a clear link on the web page about alerting a judge or worker. I refuse to get a judgment against me for not showing up. Yes I did email with zero response.”- Mark Jones, Philadelphia Family Court Google Reviews(2)
The above quote is taken from one of over 300 google reviews left for the Philadelphia Family Court alone. Other courts statewide boast similar numbers, a digital archive of the woes, frustrations, and confusion experienced by thousands of Pennsylvania residents trying to navigate complicated and unresponsive state courts. These comments range from confusion over judicial instructions and complaints of courtroom harassment to the nearly unanimous frustration that “NO ONE PICKS UP THE PHONE.”
For anyone looking for insight into how the public sees and experiences the judicial system of Pennsylvania, these reviews are a gold mine for brutally honest performance evaluations. But no one seems to be looking: unlike the typical exchange between business owner and customer sparked by negative reviews, Pennsylvanian courts seem oblivious or apathetic to the opinions and experiences of its clientele. Complaints in reviews from 2016 and 2021 echo the same issues mentioned in reviews from 2009. The court’s distant internet presence and stiff resistance to interacting on social media paints a picture of an institution that is unhearing of the people it serves. This is not a good look for a branch of democratic government, particularly in a state where judges are elected by the people.
This sense of unresponsiveness is a result of how state and local courts in Pennsylvania have locked into using their communication tools as a rigid one-way street. Unfortunately, this is a common phenomenon among most state judiciaries. Courts use their official social media accounts and web pages to disseminate official information from the institution to the public but very rarely allow members of the public to engage equally with the institution. This was a key finding in Mr. Mariano Ure’s 2019 study “Social Media Use in Justice Administration: Disintermediation, Conversation and Collaboration.”(3) Mr. Ure’s study classifies the ways that that courts use social media into three categories: disintermediated information (one-way informational communication from the institution), conversational interaction (two-way communication with the public), and deliberative collaboration (proactive invitation for contributions from the public). His study then determined which category was most commonly used by state courts, with “disintermediated information” coming in first by a landslide. Indeed, the approach of judiciaries nationwide has been to treat internet-based communication and social media with great suspicion and caution. Nearly every jurisdiction has developed stringent regulations and internal policies regarding official publications and its employees’ social media use.(4) However, very few have developed a similarly coherent policy to capitalize on the opportunities for connection presented by these modern communication tools.(5)
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1 The author is a third year J.D. Candidate at Rutgers School of Law, Camden Campus and native of Waynesboro, Pennsylvania.
2 Mark Jones, Philadelphia Family Court Google Reviews, GOOGLE (Dec. 21, 2021).
3 Mariano Ure, Social Media Use in Justice Administration: Disintermediation, Conversation and Collaboration, GLOBAL MEDIA JOURNAL, Feb. 25, 2019, at 1. This essay explores practical methods from all three categories that Pennsylvania courts can use to improve the relationship between Pennsylvanians and their judicial system.
4 Id., at 3.
5 For an example of what this type of comprehensive communication plan might look like, see FLORIDA SUPREME COURT'S JUDICIAL MANAGEMENT COUNCIL, DELIVERING OUR MESSAGE: COURT COMMUNICATION PLAN (2016), https://www.flcourts.org/content/download/216628/file/2016-Judicial-Bra…