Bench Bar Press Committee
2000 Report on Activities
Bench-Bar-Press Liaison Committee (Fire Brigade)
In the calendar year 2000, once again the work of the Fire Brigade was primarily concentrated in the areas of courtroom photography and access issues in general. One could choose to find frustration in the persistent recurrence of certain patterns or, on the other hand, derive satisfaction from the role the Brigade gets to play in helping to resist some undesirable tendencies borne of the nature of our justice system and the humans that work in and around it. Not surprisingly, the author takes the latter view.
Cameras in Court
The roughly thirteen calls relating to cameras in the court can be broken down in a couple different ways. Nine of the calls came from or on behalf of the media while four were initiated by judges. More interesting, perhaps, is that while five of the calls were essentially complaints about something that had already occurred, eight calls came either before or during the proceedings in which a limitation on photography had been announced or indicated. With the after-the-fact calls, the Brigade always followed up and it can be hoped that educational benefits may be felt in the future. In all eight of the other cases, however, it is believed that the issue was timely resolved in a way that was agreeable to all.
Camera issues arose in District and Superior Courts and involved seven different jurisdictions. Proceedings involved were predominantly preliminary appearances, arraignments and sentencings.
Access issues arose in the District Courts of two counties and the Superior Courts of three counties. The issues raised concerned jail booking information, search warrant affidavits, jurors' home addresses, Drug Court and sex predator proceedings.
It was once again observed that often a miscommunication lies at the root of what becomes an access issue calling for Brigade involvement. In an ideal world, these problems could be avoided; in this world, they at least can be quickly cleared up. On occasion, the reporter is not clear as to what information is being sought and why; on others, it is the court's failure to convey clearly the reasons for a limitation on access. A good example occurred in a murder case when the judge, the defendant, his attorneys and the court reporter suddenly and without explanation retreated to chambers where they spent the next half-hour. On behalf of some rather concerned reporters, the Brigade's inquiry gleaned that, with the defendant trying to "fire" his public defender, the extraordinary action was necessary to protect attorney-client confidentialities and work product. This could and should have been better explained to those present at the time.
A Few Examples
Some brief comment may be in order regarding just a few cases that are somewhat representative but at the same time a little unusual.
One interesting action involved intercession on behalf of a news editor concerned about access to proceedings in his county's newly created Drug Court. I had a series of conversations with news staff and the presiding judge. The judge had legitimate concerns about individuals' rights to confidentiality within the treatment relationship and particularly so in light of certain federal statutes. Our conversations touched on the philosophical (whether access to the court's adjudicatory processes should be compromised when the court has taken on a different role for itself) and the practical (the public relations benefits that come with positive media coverage of a worthwhile program). The judge's initial position seemed to relax steadily over time and some months later I noted with pleasure the nice piece of photojournalism that celebrated that Drug Court's first graduation exercise.
A hotel in Sea-Tac was the unusual venue for one Fire Brigade response. This was the site where a Medical Quality Assurance Board disciplinary proceeding was being conducted. The Administrative Law Judge had initially ruled that the embattled doctor could not be photographed anywhere on the hotel grounds. After discussions of the reach of his authority and the lack of any possible showing of a negative impact on the integrity of the proceedings, the ALJ gladly rescinded the overbroad order.
Finally, a media outlet was interested in seeing what was in some sealed documents in an aggravated murder file in a smaller county. Information they'd received from the Court Clerk suggested it could be an expensive and time-consuming process to get them unsealed. To the Fire Brigade's informal request, the judge who had ordered the sealing responded that they should all be unsealed now that the case was closed and that he would sign an order to that effect just as soon as one was presented to him. One was, he did and much time and money were saved.
During the year, the undersigned was able to do a few things in an effort to keep people in and around the court system sensitized to bench-bar-press issues. In January, in response to a request from a law firm, a memo was sent to King County judges regarding a perceived change in the law relating to the openness of sex predator probable cause hearings. In June, after attendance at the inaugural conference of the Donald W. Reynolds National Center for the Courts and Media, the op-ed piece entitled "Press and Courts Working Together Benefits All" was published in the Seattle Times. Finally, in the fall, in celebration of the 25th anniversary of King County's cameras in the court experiment, historic documents from that successful project were circulated among the judiciary.
William L. Downing, Chair
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