Some federal judges are opening the door to press reporting directly from their courtrooms in the interest of bringing more transparency to the judicial process.
Judge Tom Marten of the U.S. District Court for the District of Kansas this month is letting a reporter for the Wichita Eagle send “Twitter” messages, which are short electronic postings, directly from the courtroom where a trial of gang members is under way.
Judge Mark Bennett of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Iowa also this year allowed blogging from his courtroom in the trial of a landlord who pleaded guilty to fraud, but went to trial on income tax violations.
Many federal court judges have barred the use of electronic devices in their courtrooms, prohibiting everything from laptops to handheld devices that can send electronic messages, often in the interest of insulating jurors from media coverage to ensure a fair trial for defendants. Judges have also been concerned about the potential disruption to their courtroom proceedings. Still, the U.S. Judicial Conference has no formal policy on the matter, leaving such questions up to individual judges.
“We’re by choice the most mysterious and least transparent branch of government and I think we have an obligation to be more transparent,” Bennett said.
While there has been press blogging from some other high-profile federal trials, including that of I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby Jr. in Washington and newspaper publisher Conrad Black in Chicago, those dispatches were not made directly from the courtrooms, and such coverage would have been prohibited in those courtrooms. Variations among federal courts on such rules have existed for years, with some federal courts, such as the Eastern District of Arkansas, allowing reporters to use tape recorders in courtrooms (for the reporters’ own use, not for broadcast).
Marten and Bennett both allowed the coverage after individual reporters approached them and asked about doing it. Marten said he has known Ron Sylvester, the Wichita Eagle reporter Twittering from his courtroom, for years and respects his reporting, but would likely extend the same privilege to other reporters, too. The judge said he was quickly able to overcome one defense lawyer’s concerns that jurors might breach court rules to view the reporting and be inappropriately swayed.
“You either trust jurors to honor the admonishment or not,” Marten said. “This was pretty much a nonissue. I don’t see any difference between this and a journalist sitting in there taking notes.”
Sylvester has also been allowed to send such messages while covering Kansas state court trials. State courts also have a patchwork of policies with some, including Illinois, barring communication such as Twitter from a courtroom and others, including New York, leaving the decisions up to individual judges.
Twitter is the brand name for a service that lets a writer send instant messages, up to 140 characters in length, to groups of people who have signed up to receive the messages from that person.
When one New York judge came to David Bookstaver, communications director for that state’s court system, to voice a concern about reporters coming and going from his courtroom during the Christie Brinkley divorce proceedings last year, Bookstaver told him the disruption could be eliminated by allowing the use of BlackBerrys. The judge took his advice.
“I think this is a matter of changing a culture, not only with the judges but with the court officers,” Bookstaver said, noting that he has reminded judges and court officers alike that the New York system doesn’t bar the devices.
The use of such technology in the courtroom will become more accepted as a younger generation of judges that is less affected by media attention and more technologically savvy takes its place on the bench, said Marten, who is 57. Bennett, the Iowa federal judge, is 58.
“We are moving to a time when there is more rather than less access to the courtroom by what judges view as nonintrusive elements of the press or public,” said, First Amendment specialist Floyd Abrams, a partner at New York’s Cahill Gordon & Reindel. The reason some federal judges fear allowing electronic messaging from their courtrooms is that they believe it will lead to other types of coverage they consider more intrusive, such as TV cameras, Abrams said. “There are a number of judges afraid of the slippery slope.”