Court secrecy creates misunderstanding, reporter says

Wednesday, June 13, 2001

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Courts may have their reasons for avoiding the news spotlight, but too often secretiveness “creates misunderstandings,” veteran Supreme Court reporter Tony Mauro says.

Mauro, who analyzes U.S. Supreme Court First Amendment decisions for, told a June 4 Law School for Journalists seminar at the First Amendment Center that one of the great difficulties of covering and explaining the court’s rulings is the justices’ “aloofness, their invisibility.”

The aloofness, he said, is meant to convey that the justices are “different — they’re not part of the political fray, the nightly news or the entertainment culture.”

Although Mauro said he understood this stance, he disagreed that the court’s premier position in the American legal system entitled it to anonymity, which is what he said can lead to public confusion about the court’s role and actions.

To prevent misunderstandings between the judiciary and the public via the press, Mauro suggested greater communication from the bench. For instance, in a trial of great newsworthiness, judges could invite the press into their chambers to explain various procedural matters after each day’s proceedings.

In such high-profile trials, Mauro said, courts could make available a judge not involved with the case to answer questions about tricky legal matters.

“There is a growing number of First Amendment cases that are beginning to make holes in this wall that judges use to say why they can’t talk to the press,” said Mauro, who has covered the high court for 21 years for Gannett News Service, USA TODAY and now American Lawyer Media.

Mauro said the National Center for Courts and the Media was conducting a state-by-state study of judicial canons of ethics to find out which states have rules that prevent judges from discussing a case.

Many judges, said Mauro, think their public responsibilities “begin and end with the parties before them — they have no sense that there’s a public dimension to their responsibilities.”

Results of such a judicial attitude include gag orders, closed courtrooms and anonymous juries, he said.

“Clearly [the press] can do a better job if we’re inside (the courtroom) and if we’re given full access to the information we need,” Mauro said.

Because journalists must cover newsworthy trials whether the courts are open are not, he said, it would be better all around for judges and journalists to work together developing guidelines for coverage.

On a later panel that day, “Free Press, Fair Trial,” First Amendment Center Founder John Seigenthaler asked courts reporter Kirk Loggins of The (Nashville) Tennessean if journalists ever worried about the effects their reporting might have on trial fairness.

“My job is to find out as much as I can, confirm it and get it in the paper,” Loggins replied. He said it was up to judges to ensure fairness through jury selection and other trial procedures.

But reporter Dorinda Carter of WSMV-TV, the NBC affiliate in Nashville, said she did worry that “pre-trial coverage is so slanted, especially in a criminal trial,” because at that point most of the information is coming from the police who arrested the suspect.

Seigenthaler said judges involved in the program had said they were willing to help journalists understand legal proceedings. “They indicated … an openness that was to me refreshing as they acknowledged that if they got a call from a credible journalist who wanted context … they would be inclined to provide that.”

Loggins and Carter agreed that many judges were willing to explain how the law works in different types of cases.

The Law School for Journalists event was co-sponsored by the Tennessee Supreme Court and the First Amendment Center.

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