People don’t hold journalists or lawyers in very high esteem, to put it mildly
When it comes to maintaining trust in government, possibly the most important thing is the integrity of the courts. As a journalist, I spend a lot of time talking about what’s wrong with government, but today I want to talk about something that seems to work pretty well, which is the relationship between the press and the people in charge of our justice system.
Surveys show that people don’t hold journalists or lawyers in very high esteem, to put it mildly. Judges do better, but in recent years the bench has also been touched by controversy and scandal, from the Michigan Supreme Court justice who went to federal prison to the Wayne County judge who had sex in his chambers.
Recently I presided over two panels, completely open to the public, that were designed to explore how the press covers the courts. The sessions were mostly on the record, no holds barred, and were jointly sponsored by the State Bar of Michigan and the Society or Professional Journalists.
Last week’s panel featured two of Michigan’s top prosecutors, Barbara McQuade, the federal attorney for the eastern half of Michigan, and Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy.
Last night, it was U.S. District Judge Nancy Edmunds, who presided over the long and media-intense Kwame Kilpatrick trial. Topic A was what they thought of the press and how they felt the press covered the legal process and the courts.
I was pleasantly surprised by two things. First, both the prosecutors and the judge felt the press had done, by and large, a responsible job. Oh, there were a few things they winced at.
Judge Edmunds isn’t crazy about constant blogging and tweeting during a high-profile trial – though she acknowledges that we have a First Amendment right to do it.
She doesn’t allow reporters to send social media dispatches from her courtroom itself, though she does allow it from a separate room where the trial is on closed-circuit TV.
To my surprise, she said she thought all, or virtually all of the Kilpatrick coverage had been responsible and fair. Judge Edmunds normally doesn’t speak to the press, but that’s not out of a lack of respect for the function they play.
Her philosophy is that the court normally speaks to the public through the orders and decisions it issues, and that she ought not to try to interpret the law further.
But both prosecutors said they try to be as open to journalists as possible. Federal prosecutor McQuade even makes her personal cell phone available.
What I found fascinating is that the judge and the prosecutors all struck me as people of magisterial integrity who remain human. Kym Worthy doesn’t believe in the death penalty, but admits she’s had cases where she’d happily throw the switch.
Judge Edmunds said she agonizes over sentencing decisions, which she finds the hardest part of her job. Once, she picked up a pizza and she and the guy at the counter both realized they knew each other. Finally, he figured it out.
She had sentenced him once.
But no hard feelings; in fact, he offered her a free pizza. Justice, however, is not for sale, and the justice insisted on paying for her pie.
Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio's political analyst. You can read his essays online at michiganradio.org. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.