US Supreme Court enters 21st Century, takes a technological step forward

This file photo taken on June 15, 2017 shows a police officer standing guard on the steps of the US Supreme Court in Washington, DC. (AFP / JIM WATSON)
Updated 10 November 2017
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US Supreme Court enters 21st Century, takes a technological step forward

WASHINGTON: Surely but slowly, the Supreme Court is entering the 21st century. The court is making new legal filings available online starting Monday, years behind the rest of the federal court system.
Can livestreamed audio of arguments and even televised sessions be far behind? Yes, they can.
But advocates of court openness will take what they can get for now, especially because the Supreme Court will not charge for documents. The federal courts’ PACER system does charge fees.
“Though the Supreme Court has moved glacially to join the rest of the judiciary in permitting online filing, that’s better than not at all, and the institution should be commended for creating an e-filing system that, unlike PACER, will be free and easily accessible to the public,” said Gabe Roth, executive director of Fix the Court.
Over the years, the justices have at times shown a glancing familiarity with technology. Some carry computer tablets with high court briefs loaded on them. But notes between justices are routinely sent on paper, definitely not by email.
Chief Justice John Roberts himself noted a few years back that the court stuck with pneumatic tubes to transmit newly released opinions from the courtroom to reporters waiting one floor below until 1971, long after their heyday.
Roberts said that it’s appropriate for courts “to be late to the harvest of American ingenuity” because their primary role is to resolve disputes fairly.
Many Supreme Court legal briefs already are available online and for free from several sources. Scotusblog.com obtains and posts many of them, along with opinions. The Justice Department has an easily accessible archive of its extensive high court filings on its website, and the American Bar Association posts briefs in the 70 to 80 cases the court agrees to hear each term.
But the public may not know to look elsewhere. When the justices issued their highly anticipated decision upholding President Barack Obama’s health care overhaul in 2012, the court’s website was overwhelmed.
It, too, has recently been overhauled to make it friendlier to the public.
The Supreme Court updates come amid criticism of the PACER system as outmoded and unfair. “The PACER system used by the lower federal courts is hopelessly outdated and cumbersome. And, to add insult to injury, the PACER system charges people fees to access court records that should be made freely available,” said Deepak Gupta, the lead attorney in a class-action lawsuit challenging PACER fees.
The judiciary says the fees provide the only money to pay for the system.
The cost to users was just one among several reasons the court opted not to join the PACER system, court spokeswoman Kathy Arberg said.
“The court elected to design its system in-house so that it would have the capability to customize and continuously update to meet the distinctive needs of the court and counsel,” Arberg said.
Until now, lawyers have not been required to submit their filings to the court electronically. Beginning Monday, those documents should appear quickly on the court’s website. People who can’t afford to pay court costs will be allowed to file paper copies, which Supreme Court employees will scan and post online.
Not everything is changing. Lawyers still will be required to submit up to 40 paper copies of every brief, and the court’s color-coding system to distinguish types of briefs also will remain.
There’s no timetable for electronic filings to supplant paper as the official court record.
And there’s also no expectation that the justices will drop their prohibition on cameras in the courtroom anytime soon.
Justice Sonia Sotomayor, who once sounded open to cameras, recently told a New York audience that cameras might detract from the robust exchanges during arguments.
The Supreme Court also refuses to livestream audio of its arguments, even as the federal appeals court just down Capitol Hill recently has allowed live audio access to its hearings. The high court posts transcripts within hours of arguments, but doesn’t release the audio for days.


For Syrian refugees, the security of a new life in Europe can come at a high price

Mohammad Abdulhameed is raising his daughter Maria single-handedly. (AN photo)
Updated 15 min 56 sec ago
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For Syrian refugees, the security of a new life in Europe can come at a high price

  • More than 5.6 million people have fled Syria since civil war broke out in 2011 after the government launched a brutal crackdown on protesters during the Arab Spring. As the country descended into chaos, asylum-seekers poured into neighboring countries or
  • In 2016, 38 European countries received 1.216 million new asylum applications, most of which — 332,665 — were Syrians, according to the UN refugee agency UNHCR.

NEWPORT, UK: France was almost the final stop on Mohammad Abdulhameed’s long journey from Syria. Standing at the top of the Eiffel Tower, he watched people gazing excitedly at the view of Paris below. 

“I saw those people and thought, this is my life now, but it could be yours,” he recalled.

“Seven years ago I had planned to come to France and England to see those places as a tourist, too.”

Instead, he found himself seeing Europe for the first time as an asylum-seeker on a treacherous four-month journey that took him through Greece, Serbia, Slovenia, Croatia, Austria and Germany, before arriving in the French capital and making his way to the “Jungle” migrant camp at Calais. From there he was determined to reach the UK.

“I saw many journalists on the way and they said you’ll die before you reach the UK, it’s impossible,” he told Arab News from a sparsely furnished one-bedroom apartment that overlooks a busy roundabout in the Welsh city of Newport.

More than 10,500 Syrian refugees now live across the UK under the country’s Vulnerable Persons Resettlement Scheme. Almost 400 have been relocated in Wales, including 10 in Newport.

Abdulhameed was luckier than some. Others who, like him, jumped off a bridge on to a moving lorry bound for the UK port of Dover were hurt or killed. “It isn’t worth putting your life in jeopardy for,” he said. 

More than 5.6 million people have fled Syria since civil war broke out in 2011 after the government launched a brutal crackdown on protesters during the Arab Spring. As the country descended into chaos, asylum-seekers poured into neighboring countries or traveled further to seek refuge in Europe. 

In 2016, 38 European countries received 1.216 million new asylum applications, most of which — 332,665 — were Syrians, according to the UN refugee agency UNHCR. The crisis peaked the previous year, when more than 1 million people tried to reach Europe by sea, prompting EU leaders to introduce quotas as countries began closing their borders. Germany, which welcomed thousands of migrants a week under its open-door policy, implemented stricter controls. In Britain, rising anti-migrant sentiment fuelled a divisive Brexit debate, resulting in the country’s decision to leave the EU and increasing the challenges for refugees arriving in the country.  

Refugee boy Yamen was resettled in Newport with his family. (Francis Hawkins© SWNS.com)

Abdulhameed said initially he had hoped to remain in the Middle East. 

“Europe wasn’t an option because I didn’t think I’d be able to tolerate being so far from my family,” he said. After arriving in Turkey, he spent 18 months trying to move to the Gulf. “I tried all the countries there and not one of them accepted,” he said. “After the revolution they closed the door on Syrians.”

The forced separation of families has been one of the cruellest consequences of the war in Syria. Adapting to life in the UK provided an initial distraction for another refugee who has settled in Newport, Faisal Almohammad Al-Khalaf. The 31-year-old last saw his wife two years ago when he left Aleppo. At weekends he heads to the gym with friends, but without a reliable source of income, he struggles to make ends meet. 

“At first it was exciting, but then the challenges start because you don’t speak the language, can’t find a job and have to find a way to support yourself,” he said.

Employment is a key concern for Syrian refugees in the UK. Asylum-seekers waiting to be granted refugee status aren’t allowed to work, and even with the right papers getting a job can be a major obstacle to building a new life. Those going through the asylum system receive housing support and a £5.39-a-day living allowance.

Mariam Kemple Hardy, head of campaigns at Refugee Action, a British charity, told Arab News: “If you arrive here, for example in winter, you might not have a warm coat, so people are unable to buy some of the most basic things that we take for granted.”

As soon as the letter comes through confirming an asylum-seeker’s application is successful, those granted refugee status have just 28 days to apply for standard UK benefits before the temporary support expires. 

“It can take a long time. Often 28 days is simply not long enough, so some people do end up in poverty and destitution,” said Kemple Hardy.

Abu Mohammed brought his family to the UK legally after applying for asylum-seeker status through UNHCR. The family left their home in Homs, western Syria, soon after the outbreak of war and spent four years in Tripoli, northern Lebanon. 

“My children can have a better life in the UK. It’s safer here and the education is good,” he said.

When Arab News met the family recently, they had just spent the afternoon at a local church hall, where children had enjoyed playing with arts-and-crafts materials during a party hosted by a community group supporting Syrian refugees in Newport. 

“I used to live a proper life in Lebanon, I had my own car, my own shop, my own business … here we have a settled life, but I’m bored,” said Mohammed.

While Mohammed finds the language difficult to grasp, the rest of the family is busy embracing new commitments and making friends. His 16-year-old daughter Manal, an aspiring architect, is excited by the opportunities the move has brought. 

“British culture is very different, but you have the opportunity to do as you like. I have more freedom here,” she told Arab News.

The street that Omar, another Syrian refugee, moved to with his wife and three young children resembles every other road on the faceless housing estate in north Newport, where bland beige houses sit in uniform rows, separated by small gardens. 

Far from the shops and with no car, it is difficult to get groceries, but Omar, whose name has been changed to protect relatives still in Syria, said that he was “forced to take this house.” 

His wife, Reema, is afraid to let the children play on the street as they used to at home in the Damascus suburbs. “They don’t speak the language yet and I’m worried they’ll get lost,” she said. 

Omar’s main worry is that they will grow up with no knowledge of Syrian culture. “I see kids here smoking and fighting, and I don’t want them to do that — the culture here is different,” he said, adding that they plan to return home as soon as the situation settles.

His eldest son, Mohammed, 12, sees things differently. “I don’t have friends at home, but I do at school and I play a lot of football.” Back in Syria he played football with a watermelon, his mother said. 

Abdulhameed with fellow asylum-seekers Faisal Almohammad Al-Khalafand Jasim Al-Hasan in Newport. (AN photo by Olivia Cuthbert)

Despite their concerns, she feels safe and welcome in the UK. “People always smile at us and the neighbor comes over to chat sometimes,” she told Arab News. 

Even after traveling across Europe and standing at the top of the Eiffel Tower, Abdulhameed cannot put the turmoil of Syria behind him. Having lived for several months under Daesh rule in Deir Ezzor, in eastern Syria, and seeing many friends suffer at the hands of the regime’s forces, he still gets a jolt of anxiety every time a police officer passes before remembering that here he “can trust the British police.” 

This sense of security is all the more important to him since becoming father to six-month-old Maria. He is raising his daughter single-handedly until his wife, Khadija, can join him on a study visa.

As a Bahraini woman married to a foreigner, she is not allowed to pass on her nationality, while Abdulhameed’s refugee status means that he is unable to deal with the Syrian embassy. “Your existence is your nationality, but as a refugee I couldn’t give my daughter anything,” he told Arab News.

In five years, Abdulhameed will be eligible for a British passport and the family can become citizens of their adopted country. Until then, even though he is “treated like a British person,” the insecurity that has defined their lives for the past seven years will linger.

Bringing Maria’s mother to live with them will go some way toward alleviating the “extremely painful” separation that the family is forced to endure. 

Khadija had just one month with Maria after giving birth before her UK visit visa expired. In her absence, Abdulhameed has gone part-time at the local council, where he teaches English to other Syrians, to focus on “being a good father,” although the cut in his salary has meant he had to apply for more financial support.

Above the bed in the small but well-kept flat, he has stuck letters on the wall that say “K heart M” — Khadija loves Maria. It’s the closest she can get, he said.

“I can’t do anything, all I can do is look after Maria.”