Bench Bar Press Committee
High Profile Cases - Free Press and Fair Trial
By Rowland Thompson
Executive Director, Washington Allied Daily Newspapers
Initially the most difficult problem facing judges in high profile cases is how to deal with pretrial news coverage. This problem is equally vexing for newspaper editors and reporters as well. Both groups want a fair and impartial trial conducted with the impaneling of an untainted jury. Both groups also want the public to have the opportunity to be fully informed about every case in the criminal justice system from investigation and arrest to conviction or acquittal.
These two constitutionally protected rights do not have to be in diametric opposition. They must be made coequal because public trust and confidence in our courts is based solely on the absolute transparency of an impartial process. Election of the judiciary is a renewal of the faith of the public in the courts, but their trust and confidence is firmly founded on the rock of constant inspection that free and open access allows.
The faith of the public in the courts means that they willingly submit themselves to judgment and that the overwhelming power of the state is not required to enforce attendance at sessions. This is the only way that the courts of a democracy can function and it is made possible by the public's trust and confidence that constant transparency allows.
The conflicts in making these rights compatible and coexisting can be worked out. To that end Bench Bar Press brings judges, attorneys, and news professionals together to train, inform, and peer counsel in resolving the friction between the First and the Sixth Amendments. Bench Bar Press also holds as its central tenet Article 1, Section 10 of the Washington State Constitution; "Justice in all cases shall be administered openly, and without unnecessary delay."
Bench Bar Press has served Washington State's courts since early in the 1960's by creating relationships, dialogue, and understanding of public access to trials not only between the three branches, but within them as well. This most important aspect of Bench Bar Press is the reiteration of the responsibilities of the partners to the public, to each other, and to their constitutional duties and professional ethics at the same time.
Between meetings of the Bench Bar Press Committee and the Steering Committee, the Liaison Committee, or Fire Brigade, as it is more commonly known, functions as the as the daily responder to conflicts and misunderstandings that arise. The Liaison Committee allows dialogue to continue even in the course of trials, resolves conflicts, and maintains a balancing of rights in court access and news coverage.