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For a few days in September, the opulent beaux arts Ninth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals building on 7th Street was one of the most photographed in the West. It wasn’t because of the building’s beauty or history. The Ninth Circuit had postponed California’s recall election and the national media, already fascinated by Hollywood action hero Arnold Schwarzenegger’s run for governor, trained its considerable eye on the court. What happened over the next week could be a blueprint for other courts dealing with high-profile cases. Accustomed to intense media interest in its rulings, the Ninth Circuit was ready for the recall case. The response underscored how much the traditionally reclusive judiciary’s attitude toward the press is changing. These days, courts, and judges themselves, are showing ever-greater media savvy. The Ninth Circuit made all recall-related documents available online. It allowed cameras into the en banc hearing that led to the reinstatement of the Oct. 7 vote — something the Ninth Circuit has allowed for years but other courts remain reluctant to do. And even though the panel decided within hours of the hearing what to do, it waited until the next morning to release its decision, simultaneously distributing a summary so television reporters wouldn’t be seen flipping through page after page while on air — avoiding a repeat of the confusion that reigned following the Supreme Court’s release of Bush v. Gore. “It was a completely transparent process, and the public was able to see it,” said David Madden, assistant Ninth Circuit executive for public affairs. Through the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts, judges — who make up what has long been the least understood of the three branches of government — are being encouraged to help explain the court’s business to the public. David Sellers, who heads the AOC’s public affairs office (the AOC didn’t pay attention to public affairs until 1987, and didn’t create a freestanding public affairs office until 1997) said part of the change is “a recognition that there needs to be better education” about how courts work. Madden’s position was the first of its kind in the country. Three more federal courts have public information officers now, including the Eastern District of Virginia, which has received requests from 2,000 reporters seeking to cover the trial of Zacarias Moussaoui, alleged to be the 20th Sept. 11 hijacker. The changes seem to go further than merely accommodating the media. Judges themselves seem more willing to talk to the press. When Congress passed the PROTECT Act and further limited judges’ sentencing discretion, the condemnation from the U.S. Judicial Conference was swift. But many individual judges made their displeasure known through the media as well. Northern District Chief Judge Marilyn Hall Patel — whom no one ever accused of being a shrinking violet — told The Recorder that congressional representatives “should hang their head in shame” over the limited debate over the legislation. Former U.S. District Judge John Martin even resigned from the bench in protest, making a very noisy withdrawal by spelling out his reasons in a New York Times op-ed. After the PROTECT Act was passed, Sellers said he received a call from a National Public Radio correspondent looking for comment from the judiciary. “Later, she said she called five judges, and all five were willing to go on the air,” Sellers said. For Chief Judge Deanell Tacha of the Tenth Circuit, who spearheads a national effort to bring media and judges together, the reasons for the change are clear. “This has actually been a purposeful effort throughout the courts,” said Tacha, who also meets regularly with the local Associated Press reporter in Lawrence, Kan. Tacha cited rising public interest in the court’s business. “It just seemed like our lives were impinging on each other ever more.” Hosted by the Freedom Forum, Tacha said the media get-togethers are not just for the benefit of the press — communication is a two-way street. “I had this real basic realization,” Tacha said of her own experience, “that the reporters don’t write headlines.” In the Ninth Circuit, the reason for the press push was more court-specific — the court, to put it bluntly, suffered from an image problem. It is often painted as the most out-of-step court in the country. “I would have to acknowledge that there is — or there was — concern about the public image of the Ninth Circuit,” Madden said. “I think there was a concerted effort to make ourselves better understood and known.” Locally, U.S. District Judge Saundra Brown Armstrong is responsible for the Northern District’s public outreach program, which is aimed both at the press and the general public. Though she had always been interested in community outreach programs, she said when she first became a judge 14 years ago her attitude was to shun the press. She even kept an article called, “If Mike Wallace Calls, Hang Up.” In the pre-Watergate days, Armstrong said, “nine times out of 10 a reporter could be inquisitive without being the Grand Inquisitor.” But the press had grown more aggressive. “I’ve come a long way in my own personal approach to the media,” Armstrong said. “I’ve really come to understand that the media is the only way for the public to understand what we do.” “It’s real clear to me that it’s in our interest that you get it right.” Ninth Circuit Judge Alex Kozinski, one of the more accessible federal judges on the bench, agreed. “I think it’s important for the public to be informed,” Kozinski said. Most reporters, he said, “want to be responsible. They want to be informed about the cases and the issues. � It better serves the court if you deal with the press.” To be sure, there are those who still cling to the notion that judges should only speak through their written opinions. Sellers said he spends about 20 minutes with each new chief judge explaining what his office is trying to do. Some are more receptive than others. “I think [some] judges are understandably scared away by the notion that ‘I’m going to have a spinmeister there that’s going to interpret my opinions,’” Sellers said. But that’s not the case, he and others said. Judges won’t ever be asked to violate the ethical canons in the interest of furthering public understanding. “Public affairs in the judiciary is very different than it is in the other two branches of government,” Sellers said. Madden agreed. Though many Ninth Circuit judges, especially the younger ones, are happy to answer inquiries from the press, others remain reclusive. “As we know, these are lifetime appointments,” Madden said. “And they’re going to do what they’re going to do.”

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