Together, Courts and Media Can Improve Public Knowledge of the Justice System
Moon, Ronald T. Y., Judicature
Public trust and confidence in the courts are based on an open judiciary and accurate public perception of it-for which the bench, the bar, and the media are collectively responsible.
Editor's NoLe: Adapted from remarks made to the Honolulu Community-Media Council in January 2004 addressing the results oj Hawaii's recent Openness in the Courts conference, which brought together members of the media, bench, and bar, as well as representatives of the general public, to discuss issues related to openness in the justice system.
Despite the many ongoing projects and initiatives implemented by the judiciary in Hawaii to inform the public about the judicial system and the work of the courts, many citizens still lack understanding about their justice system and believe that judges and the courts operate in secrecy. Public trust and confidence in the way we do business is based, in part, on an open judiciary, which means the judicial system must have some degree of transparency to the extent permitted by law.
Last year, the Hawaii State judiciary, together with the Hawaii State Bar Association, began work to determine where our citizens believed more transparency was needed and how we could best achieve more transparency within the limits of existing law and applicable ethical rules, "in March 2003, thanks to a grant from the State justice Institute, we commissioned Ward Research, Inc., to conduct research on issues of openness among judges, attorneys, members of the media, and the public at large. The primary objective was to provide qualitative data regarding perceptions of openness in the courts, including what works, what needs improvement, and how the system might better serve key stakeholder groups and the general public. (see page 206, for a summary of the report.)
Utilizing this information, an eight -member planning committee -comprised of members from the media, bench, bar, and general public -selected three main issues for discussion at a conference held last November. The topics were: (1) the extent to which judges should or should not comment about pending cases; (2) openness of and access to case records; and (3) openness in trial proceedings. Attendees at the conference developed several recommendations as to each issue that are relevant not only to Hawaii's judiciary but to state judiciaries throughout the nation.
Canon 3B(9) of Hawaii's Revised Code of judicial Conduct prohibits judges from making any public comment while a proceeding is pending or impending that might reasonably be expected to affect the outcome of the proceeding or its fairness. The conferees were confident that, within the constraints of the code, judges can and should provide more information to the public about judicial proceedings and court procedures than they currently do.
Similarly, the conferees were adamant that the public and media should be educated about why judges are reluctant to speak regarding pending or impending matters. One way courts can address this recommendation is to hold more continuing education programs to inform judges of the constraints of the judicial canons and the range of public comment allowable on judicial matters or actions so long as fairness is not undermined. Courts can also invite civic groups to co -sponsor ongoing public debates about "fair trial versus free speech" issues.
Additionally, court public information officers should make clarifying statements to the public and media about judicial concerns regarding rights to privacy and fair trials, while noting the public interest in certain high -profile cases. The courts should encourage media organizations to offer educational opportunities to their members -and support them in such endeavors -to help journalists better understand appropriate commentary on court cases while continuing their essential work of informing the public and improving civic education.
When the subject of confidentiality of court records arises, discussions generally focus on family court records and proceedings because, unlike other case types, the confidentiality of many family court matters are legislatively mandated. …