Unique Gathering, Remarkable Results: Judges, Lawyers, Journalists Agree on a Number of Issues concerning Media Coverage of Courts

Article excerpt

Remarkable thing happened when judges, lawyers and journalists gathered at a unique joint conference in Reno, Nev.

The 120 participants agreed - mostly - on a number of issues concerning media coverage of the courts, including cameras in the courtroom, gag orders, access to court records and the protection of confidential sources.

Indeed, the meeting of the minds was so over whelming that the journalists were stunned - or at least pleasantly surprised - as perhaps were some of the judges, lawyers and district attorneys in attendance.

The occasion was the "National Conference on the Media and the Courts Working Together to Serve the American People."

It was sponsored by the National Judicial College (NJC), which trains judges, and the University of Nevada, Reno (UNR), with a grant from the Donald W Reynolds Foundation.

Although the conference on the UNR campus covered a variety of topics relating to court coverage, the O.J. Simpson trial and its controversies pervaded many of the discussions and was partly, at least, the catalyst for the assemblage.

Several O.J. trial veterans were among those invited as speakers or panelists, including Linda Deutsch of Associated Press; Jim Newton and Bill Boyarsky, Los Angeles Times; Shirley Perlman, Newsday Simpson defense attorney Barry Scheck, and law professors Peter Arenella, Erwin Chemerinsky and Laurie Levenson, TV commentators on the trial.

NJC dean Kenneth A. Rohrs said Los Angeles Superior Court judge Lance Ito, who presided over the Simpson case, was invited, but declined.

The agreements on media access to the courts were worked out in 10 small-group breakout sessions involving judges, lawyers and media representatives.

While their consensus is not binding on any judge, the fact remains that judges and district attorneys from all over the country returned to, their jurisdictions with perhaps a better understanding of the media's request for greater access to court proceedings. There was general accord for a "presumption". that cameras should be allowed in both criminal and civil trials.

The conferees also said:

* Gag orders by judges should be used rarely in criminal cases and be issued only after a formal hearing with the press present, and "never to shield judicial performance." Deutsch called such orders a "gag of the press."

* Judges should not deny the media access to a proceeding before holding a hearing involving all parties.

* The presumption should be that all documents filed in court are open.

* Reporters should not be considered an arm of law enforcement or a "tool" for parties to civil and criminal litigation.

* Abolish grand jury secrecy.

* Judges need to be more willing to answer general questions from the press on pending cases.

* Secret settlements involving public agencies should be prohibited.

Participants in almost all of the sessions urged ongoing dialogue between the press, bar and media in an organizational setting such as the committee that operates in Washington state.

Journalism also came in for its share of the "clean up your act" approach.

One proposal read: "Journalists should cover journalism with the same scrutiny and vigor as other groups and should encourage ombudsmen systems wherever feasible. …