Grammy-winning singer Fiona Apple has never set foot in Maryland's Prince George's County. But, thanks to the remote video access to courtrooms that expanded nationwide during the pandemic, she is one of the most dedicated volunteer court watchers in the county's courts, under the auspices of the group Courtwatch PG.
Building on that affiliation, Apple has become a prime spokesperson for a new national network of such groups called National Courtwatch Network, which was the subject of a Washington Post Live online event Feb. 16 and a lengthy Post story on the network's goal of turning the nation's independent, mostly small and local, court watching groups into a more formidable force for transparency.
The usually publicity-shy performer has gone public with her volunteer work, and wrote the original score to accompany a Courtwatch video on the campaign, to make what she called at the launch event a communal effort to ensure more equitable justice. "Let us make a giant network, a giant neighborhood, a community across the nation," Apple said. "Don't let them make people numbers anymore."
Apple first learned of court watching after participating in a campaign called Gasping for Justice, which told stories of people inside Prince George's County jails and the conditions they faced. After participating in that campaign, she received an email asking for volunteers to watch courts, and she joined before even knowing what it entailed.
Apple said the mission felt compelling to her. "When people are having their worst day at their most vulnerable, at the very least somebody should be there with them, be a witness and don't let them go through it alone," she said.
Apple has since been working with Carmen Johnson, director of Courtwatch PG, to bring awareness of what goes on inside courts. They talked about their work at the Feb. 16 online event.
Both Apple and Johnson faced uncertainty with their work when the pandemic in 2020 interrupted legal systems. Their concerns that people in courts would be suddenly isolated ceased when they received a Zoom link notifying them of virtual access to courts.
"It changed our life because then we realized how important virtual access is as opposed to actually going to courtrooms," Johnson said.
With virtual access, people would no longer have to take off work, or skip other life responsibilities to watch the court interactions. Johnson also said virtual court proceedings were more inclusive to people with disabilities, mentioning those with impaired hearings who could now read the lips of officials in these courtrooms.
Apple talked about her advocacy for a bill that would make online access to courtrooms more permanent in Maryland. "People need to see what's going on," she said, "It's our right to see what's going on."
Apple said nothing can be fixed in the justice system if people are uninformed and unaware of the legal processes. "What happens in bond hearings actually affects communities and affects generations," she said.
Court-watching work consists of reviewing dockets, being aware of charges made, and knowing which cops are involved. She said she writes down notes on situations that could be cause for concerns, or need to be flagged. She meets with the court-watching team at the end of the day and together they debrief before writing up forms that get sent to the accountability team, which writes letters based on the issues that got flagged.
Court watchers are consistently looking to stay informed themselves to understand the legal proceedings in order to better support their cause. "We're also learning about how different statutes and codes work in different states, you know, in the country, so we're learning different languages. We all are learning from one another," Johnson said.
Apple was inspired to join Courtwatch PG in part because she had her own run-in with the law while touring in Texas years ago, the Post reported. She could have gone to prison on marijuana possession charges, she says, if not for the advocacy of a good friend and the grace of an empathetic judge. “It was drugs, it was hash. I wasn’t violent,” Apple said in an interview. “But I could have gone away for 10 years, you know? And that’s happening to people all of the frickin’ time. It’s happening to people every day. For less.”