Coverage of courts impacts society


By Steve Key

There’s a symbiotic relationship between the media and the courts.

As former Indiana Chief Justice Randall Shepard once said, they both need each other.

I was reminded of this recently while participating on a panel concerning the importance of access to judicial records at the annual meeting of the National Association of Government Archives & Records Administrators in Indianapolis.

Shepard said newspapers needed a robust court system to provide the First Amendment protection that journalists need to effectively serve as a watchdog on government activity.

Conversely, the courts need a robust newspaper presence to disseminate information on the judicial process and decisions of judges and justices.

As Shepard pointed out, the judicial branch has no army to exert its co-equal power with the legislative and executive branches of government. Judicial power derives from the support of the people.

The transparency of the court system – open hearings and available documents – allows the public to understand the role of the court as a check on potential abuses of the other branches of government and the dispenser of justice.

With few citizens in a position to follow the courts on a regular basis, the media becomes the eyes and ears for the public.

While one may argue whether the George Zimmer­man trial was over-exposed, the daily live coverage of the case coupled with analysis allowed anyone with any interest to know what transpired and perhaps why it happened.

While many may disagree with the verdict, there was not a cry for civil unrest but a call for an examination of factors that may have contributed to the result – whether it’s racial profiling or “stand your ground” laws.

The verdict of the jury was accepted.

On a national level, many were unhappy back when the Supreme Court effectively determined the outcome of the 2000 presidential election with its Bush v. Gore decision. But the country accepted the court’s decision.

In an era where newspapers have been forced to cut reporting staffs and examine how to allocate the resources they have in putting together a daily or weekly newspaper, I hope coverage of the courts doesn’t diminish.

In addition to democracy’s need for court coverage, stories on lawsuits and criminal prosecutions often shine a light on issues that may call for a national dialogue on public policies or reflect the attitude of a nation that is ever-changing.

An 1866 U.S. Supreme Court case (ex parte Milligan) found the trying of civilians in military courts unconstitutional when civilian courts are still operating. The case has seen new attention in an age of terrorist acts.

Plessy v. Ferguson said separate but equal was constitutional in 1896. The change in public attitude was reflected 60 years later when that Supreme Court case was overturned in Brown v. Board of Education, ushering in the desegregation of the country.

The divorce proceedings of then-General Electric CEO Jack Welsh shocked Americans and corporate stockholders into examining the extraordinary compensation being received by corporate leaders.

Scenic Hudson Preservation Conference v. Federal Power Commission in 1965 said citizens don’t have to show economic hardship from a project to have standing to sue if a project creates environmental and aesthetic harms – opening a new examination into environmental impacts of economic projects.

Local courts also reflect a community.

People weren’t shocked in 1982 when a Carmel 9-year-old filed a small claims lawsuit because she didn’t get a toy in her box of Cracker Jack. That seemed par for the course for that affluent area.

And Hamilton County law enforcement received loud and clear the message sent by a jury that acquitted a safecracker.

Police caught the ex-con carrying a paper bag with $1,000 as he left the scene of a heist at a hardware store on Noblesville’s town square. But the jury didn’t like how law enforcement staked out the store based on insider information.

The police got a tip about the plan and stood by as accomplices broke into the rooms above the hardware store and chopped a hole in the floor so they could drop down into the store and unlock the door for the safecracker to enter and apply his expertise.

The courts contain a wealth of stories and shouldn’t be neglected by today’s newsrooms.

Steve Key is executive director and general counsel for HSPA.