Judge's District Court YouTube streams come to an end

CENTREVILLE — Days after a recent court hearing went viral with a person logging in with an unfortunate username, and the comments and critiques that followed, St. Joseph County 3B District Court Judge Jeffrey Middleton has ended YouTube livestreams of his court’s hearings effective Monday.

Middleton made the announcement in a 22-minute video posted to his courtroom’s YouTube channel Monday morning. In it, he cited a phone call from the State Court Administrator’s Office (SCAO) “strongly suggesting” his live streams be stopped, as well as unsavory emails, phone calls and comments he received as factors in the decision.

“I got an email from someone who doesn’t live in the county that said I was an ‘embarrassment to the county and the court.’ Then later a colleague advised me I’d been doing it wrong all along, the YouTube, and essentially everything I’ve been doing as a judge for 18 years I’ve been doing wrong,” Middleton said. “I also got a phone call, someone left a message on our answering machine, that I was ‘deplorable.’ I guess it’s hard to please everyone, certainly.”

Middleton’s court hearings in 3B District Court have gotten increased attention locally, nationally and even internationally since March, when a hearing on a Sturgis assault case went viral and got widespread media attention after it was discovered the defendant in the case was calling into the hearing over Zoom from the same house as the alleged victim. The defendant, 21-year-old Coby James Harris of Sturgis, was then arrested at the house and lodged in the St. Joseph County Jail.

The video of the hearing garnered over a million views before it was removed by Middleton, and his live streams have gotten increased viewership in the months following from all around the world, with his channel having over 14,000 subscribers as of Monday.

The latest viral incident in Middleton’s court came last week, when he chewed out a defendant who inadvertently joined the court’s Zoom call with an inappropriate username that contained an expletive – Middleton referenced the name in Monday’s video as “Mr. 2,999 and 9/10.” The defendant explained the name was a pairing name for their Bluetooth speaker and an “inside joke,” later apologizing for what happened.

Middleton said a few days after that incident, he got the call from SCAO.

“They took pains to indicate they couldn’t order it, but it was directed specifically to stop the live feed,” Middleton said. “The Supreme Court were the ones that told us to do this in the first place, so I guess I should follow their instruction when they tell me to stop.”

Middleton explained the situation behind Zoom court in the first place, saying the Michigan Supreme Court began live streams of court proceedings last year due to the COVID-19 pandemic and the fact physical courtrooms were closed to the public as a virus mitigation measure, with the Supreme Court purchasing Zoom licenses for courtrooms across the state. However, he added the courts are “not far” from reopening to the public and getting back to relative normalcy.

Middleton called the live streams in the past year an “experiment in transparency and public acknowledgement of what we’re doing in our courts.” While he said he wasn’t ashamed of anything he did as judge in court on the streams, and that he was all for transparency and letting people see how court worked, Middleton said there was one flaw with the concept of court live streams that concerned him.

“The inherent flaw in the process is that no one asked the litigants what they thought about it. No one asked the domestic violence victims or the young girl charged with shoplifting or someone that got arrested for drunk driving or someone that’s got a prelim on a meth charge, or someone,” Middleton said. “No one asked them, ‘What do you think about being broadcast on YouTube and having 1.5 million hits?’ That’s the downside of this.”

Technology-wise, Middleton noted the difficulty of managing YouTube livestreams, mentioning he had to go through “15 steps” just to turn off the live chat for each stream, and mentioned that some of the hearing videos have actually gotten monetized by YouTube, with ads placed on the videos, which he called “distressing.”

“We never set out to be YouTube stars, we’re just doing our court,” Middleton said.

Middleton also critiqued the notion that people were watching the videos as entertainment, rather than as an educational experience, calling what had been happening a “reality show.”

“I don’t have a show or an offer for a show – at one point a friend did try several years ago to market a St. Joseph County reality show – but that’s what this was, a reality show that was reality. It gave people a slight window into how the judicial system works in 2021 in St. Joseph County and maybe the rest of the world,” Middleton said. “I think we’ll end up as a historical footnote when people look back at what happened during COVID shutdown and the Zoom era of the court.”

Middleton took time to thank his staff and other county judges for their assistance with the live stream endeavor, thanked his family for putting up with the situation, and thanked all of the lawyers in St. Joseph County for all their hard work, giving special mention to assistant prosecutor Deborah Davis. He also thanked those from around the world that have positively commented on the streams for giving them a glimpse into how court proceedings work.

“I’ve received cards and emails and other messages. I guess for everyone that thinks I’m deplorable, there are people that thank us for sharing our proceedings with them,” Middleton said. “I appreciate all the people I work with, the lawyers, the staff in the courthouse, and I thank you for watching our videos, commenting on them, having an opinion and maybe learning something about the judicial process and how it works, at least here.”

Robert Tomlinson can be reached at 279-7488 ext. 23 or robert@threeriversnews.com.

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