Bench Bar Press Committee
Washington's 'Fire Brigade'
By Judge Bill Downing, King County Superior Court
The public we judges serve has a vital interest in having our justice system administered fairly, without undue interference from any quarter. At the same time, the public also has a vital interest in being able to keep a watchful eye on that system through the maintenance of its own theoretical right of access and, more practically, the rights of access of a free press.
Rather than viewing these ideals as contradictory, the Bench-Bar-Press Committee of Washington embraces as its mission the "fullest practicable attainment" of both of them.
This is not to say, however, that the goals of free press and fair trial do not on rare occasion directly collide and with somewhat greater regularity brush up against each other at high speed. When these frictions produce sparks, the "Fire Brigade" strives to see that no one is burned - not the judiciary, not the working press, not the parties before the court and most certainly not the public.
The Fire Brigade is the common name for the Liaison Committee of the Bench-Bar-Press Committee. It is called into action whenever anyone feels it has the potential to be helpful in resolving an incipient free press -fair trial dispute that has arisen or may arise in the course of a legal proceeding.
If there is a typical call-out for the Brigade, it might come from a member of the press corps who is unhappy that a judge has not granted complete access either to a judicial proceeding or else to documents relating to a judicial action. The Fire Brigade representative will typically consult with the judge in question and then likely be able to provide a more satisfactory explanation or, alternatively, to bring about a more acceptable result.
Sometimes the reporter may have come away from court with an incorrect understanding of the extent of the limitation imposed by the judge. It may also be that the reporter (or editor or attorney for the media outlet) has not grasped the legitimate reasons behind the limitation imposed by the judge.
On occasion, the judge may have simply neglected to make the necessary public articulation of the reasons for the restriction on access. On others, it may turn out that the judge, in the face of agreement between the parties to the newsworthy case being litigated, may have forgotten to consider fully the unrepresented rights of the public.
Even when the Brigade is not successful in bringing about the hoped for resolution, its efforts should serve to increase all participants' sensitivity to the needs, concerns and limitations of the others.
It often is the case that the Fire Brigade is contacted by judicial officers who are either preparing for a high profile case or need to respond to a media request for access to court proceedings or documents. Even when things have not heated up (and maybe especially then), Fire Brigade members are always happy to chat off-the-record about such matters as cameras in the court, access issues, gag orders, fair coverage, etc.
For further information, please contact King County Superior Court Judge William Downing at 206-296-9362 or William.email@example.com
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