SUN VALLEY, Ida. — Federal judges from nine Western states were sharply divided Saturday after a weeklong debate on whether to restrict or try to improve media coverage of the courts.
The annual judicial conference of the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals was marked by proposals ranging from closer relations between judges and the press to no relations at all.
"There's still concern about opening up our courtrooms too much to the press," said Chief U.S. District Judge Manuel L. Real of Los Angeles.
"It's not a problem that can be solved for judges by somebody else," he added. "Each judge has to handle it his or her way."
Some of the 300 judges and lawyers who attended the conference said they favor gag orders on lawyers in all cases to ensure fair trials, and others criticized loose court coverage as "usually inaccurate and misleading."
The strong anti-press mood of many judges caught some defenders of First Amendment rights by surprise.
"There was no consensus, but I do sense among the judiciary and the establishment Bar a certain hostility to the press," said Circuit Judge William A. Norris of Los Angeles. "I hope I'm wrong, because I don't see the press as the enemy."
Norris said that judges who favor gag orders are primarily concerned about restricting attorney comment, not press freedoms. But he added that judges have no business curtailing what lawyers say outside the courtroom.
Role for State Bars
"It is up to the state Bars to enforce the canons of ethics of our profession, not us," he said. "Lawyers have First Amendment rights and the right to defend their clients outside the courtroom as well as in."
The conference was the first 9th Circuit meeting ever devoted to the public's view of the federal courts and the sometimes conflicting interests of judges and reporters. Chief Judge James R. Browning of San Francisco said the debate alone was a "significant step" in improving relations between the court and the media.
"The press has their ax to grind and we have ours," Browning said. "Despite that, there was a general recognition here that the administration of the courts can be improved by a better public awareness of what we do, and the press is crucial in creating that awareness."
Browning said one positive judicial approach to the media is in Tucson, where federal judges have established an annual "press day" to educate television and newspaper reporters who are unfamiliar with the courts about basic court procedures.
"I think the 9th Circuit should try to institutionalize press relations," Browning said. "There's going to be a goal in mind in the next year. We will be thinking seriously about setting up a little orientation program for the media so that they will have a greater understanding of the federal courts."
Lack of Understanding
While Browning and other judges at the conference--including U.S. Supreme Court Justice Byron R. White--said they believe the public has a generally favorable view of the federal judiciary, outside observers said there is little public understanding of the courts.
"The reality is probably that the public doesn't know what the 9th Circuit is," Walter A. Zelman, executive director of California Common Cause, told the judges of the nation's largest federal appellate court.
"Why does the public have so little knowledge?" Zelman asked. "One reason is the press isn't terribly interested in the internal workings of the courts. You also do an awful lot to keep the public out."
While some judges said they have tried to improve public understanding of the courts by off-the-record talks with reporters, others took the view that a judge should not try to function in any sort of "public relations" capacity and should worry only about fair trial concerns.
The conference produced general condemnation of defense lawyers who hold news conferences during trials, and some criticism of federal prosecutors who also call news conferences to announce major criminal indictments.
Blame on Prosecutor
"The problem often begins with the prosecutor," Albert J. Krieger, a leading Miami defense lawyer, told the judges. "The trend today in the high-profile cases is to return an indictment that is a catalogue of criminality. The U.S. attorney will plug into the indictment all kinds of information that should not be there."
Denouncing Krieger's charge as "nonsense," U.S. Atty. Robert C. Bonner of Los Angeles angrily responded that defense lawyers merely use the publicity surrounding an indictment as "an excuse" for subsequent press comment designed to promote themselves as well as their clients.
In an interview, however, Bonner conceded that some judges at the conference were as critical of government comment on criminal cases as of pretrial publicity generated by defense lawyers.
"Judges have different responsibilities," Bonner said. "One of the things judges don't realize is there's a value in having press conferences because of the enormous number of media inquiries in high-profile cases.