Trying to Shed Light on Cases, Judges Get Slapped for Speaking to Media
Gauthier, Ashley, News Media and the Law
Judge Thomas Penfield Jackson, speaking out of court, said he had never seen a stronger case against a defendant. The appellate court defended Jackson's right to speak about the case and said that "a trial judge is entitled to form his own judgment as to the conduct of a defendant."
That was the opinion of the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington, D.C., (D.C. Cir.) when former Mayor Marion Barry tried to force Jackson to recuse himself from his sentencing for possession of crack cocaine in 1991.
Jackson, assigned to the Barry case, had spoken to an audience at Harvard Law School and discussed the trial. Barry asked Jackson to recuse himself, but the judge denied the request. On appeal, the court rejected Barry's arguments and found that Jackson had not acted improperly. The court stated, "[a] judge's candid reflections of what he has inferred from the trial about the defendant's character and conduct simply do not establish bias or prejudice." The court also ruled that "while the district judge's extrajudicial voicing of his views . . . may be a violation of the Code of Conduct ... any such violation does not necessarily create an appearance of personal bias or partiality such as to require recusal." (In re Barry)
Jackson was treated quite differently by the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington (D.C. Cir.) this year when Microsoft appealed his order splitting up the company. Jackson spoke to reporters about the case, often criticizing Microsoft and its founder Bill Gates. The appellate court said Jackson's conduct created an appearance of bias and remanded the case to another trial judge to reconsider the remedy against Microsoft for antitrust violations. (U.S. v. Microsoft)
Judges are in a difficult position because they are discouraged from commenting on pending cases, but they are encouraged to educate the public about the court system. It can sometimes be difficult to tell when one has crossed the line.
For example, the U.S. Court of Appeals in Boston (Ist Cir.) ruled on Feb. 5 that a judge who spoke to the media to clarify matters of procedure should have recused herself from the case because her comments could have been interpreted to indicate that she was biased.
The lawsuit at issue was filed by a group of plaintiffs who alleged that racial preferences were used in Boston's elementary school assignment procedures, in violation of state and federal law. The plaintiffs sought class-action status. However, federal Judge Nancy Gertner found that some of the plaintiffs might not have standing for injunctive relief because they did not apply for a new school assignment. Gertner recommended that further discovery be done on the issue of standing before a class was certified.
Despite the judge's recommendation, the plaintiffs filed a motion for class status. The plaintiffs further criticized the judge in a Boston Herald article because the judge failed to immediately certify the class in the pending case, even though she had certified a class in a prior case, involving female prisoners who had been strip-searched, that the plaintiffs thought was similar.
Gertner responded to the Herald article by letter. She clarified that she had not denied class certification but had merely postponed a ruling until further discovery occurred.
The Herald wrote a follow-up article and interviewed Gertner. The paper quoted her as saying "In the [prior] case, there was no issue as to whether [the plaintiffs] were injured. It was absolutely clear that every woman had a claim. This is a more complex case."
Based on that comment, …
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Publication information: Article title: Trying to Shed Light on Cases, Judges Get Slapped for Speaking to Media. Contributors: Gauthier, Ashley - Author. Magazine title: News Media and the Law. Volume: 25. Issue: 3 Publication date: Summer 2001. Page number: 45+. © Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press Fall 2008. Provided by ProQuest LLC. All Rights Reserved.