Chief Justice Speech - May 11, 2007

Chief Justice Ronald M. George
Opening Remarks
Bench/Bar/Media Committee
10 a.m., Friday, May 11, 2007 – San Francisco

Good morning. I am very pleased to be here to welcome you to a meeting convened to focus on the creation of a statewide Bench/Bar/Media Committee — the first of its kind in this state. Later this spring, I will formally appoint the committee, which will be charged with developing strategies and programs to improve professional working relationships among the judicial branch, the bar, and the journalists who report on the courts and the legal system.

It is our hope that this committee will provide a statewide forum for exchanging ideas and concerns about fair trials, the free press, and other key issues affecting the courts, the media, and the public. It will offer a means to address problems and resolve differences in an effective manner and to improve mutual understanding of the important roles each plays in our society.

Assembled here today from the judicial branch is an impressive group of participants including representatives of the trial and appellate courts of California — among them my colleague Justice Carlos Moreno from the California Supreme Court. We also have individuals from the State Bar of California and the Attorney General’s Office, and representatives from district attorney, public defender, and criminal defense bar organizations.

On the media side, we are fortunate to have notable representatives from a wide variety of media organizations here, such as the California Newspaper Publishers Association — whose Board of Directors’ member, Ralph Alldredge I have enjoyed meeting and who has been a moving force behind this meeting, as Chair of CNPA’s Bench Bar Media Committee. Also participating today are representatives of the California Broadcasters Association, the Radio and TV News Directors Association, the Los Angeles Times, the American Lawyer, the Daily Journal Corporation, and California Channel.

Also joining us are representatives of the University of California School of Journalism, the California State Sheriffs’ Association — whose members are responsible for providing security at our courthouses — and the California Highway Patrol, which is responsible for the protection of our appellate justices.

Why has this distinguished group been brought together? Each of you comes from a segment of society whose fundamental mission is serving the public. And although our roles may be different, we all have a vital role in our system of justice.

The courts uphold the rule of law by maintaining a strong and independent branch of government capable of rendering fair and objective justice for all. Members of the bar provide effective and essential representation to those vindicating their rights in the courts. Law enforcement personnel protect all persons — judges, staff, lawyers, witnesses, jurors, parties, and members of the public — who enter our courts, and play a crucial role in the administration of justice.

The media performs a vital function in keeping the public informed of the role of the judicial system within our system of government and reporting on the decisions and actions of the justice system and how they affect the public.

We each come to the table with our own perspectives. Working together, we hope to improve our understanding of each other’s functions and to develop practices in areas of common concern that will improve the operation of the legal system and promote greater public understanding of the courts and of the unique commitment of our system of government to the rule of law.

We have several precedents to draw upon. Many state trial courts have established local bench/bar/media committees that have made important contributions to our system of justice at the local and regional level. And statewide bench/bar/media committees are already in operation in a number of states.

The state of Washington offers an excellent example of how such a statewide committee can benefit the public. Now under the leadership of Chief Justice Gary Alexander, the group, known as the Fire Brigade Committee, has operated successfully since 1963. It has been instrumental in shaping Washington’s policies on cameras in the courts and in finding effective ways to resolve disputes among the courts, the bar, and the news media.

I am pleased that Judge Richard Downing, the chair of our sister state’s committee, is today’s luncheon speaker. I am certain he has much to tell us about how a successful committee operates.

I view this venture as yet another in our judicial branch’s commitment to improving access to the courts for the public. Working with the Governor and Legislature and our judicial leaders, the Judicial Council — the statewide policy-making body for the judicial branch — and the local courts have made great progress in opening the courthouse doors to the entire community by various means, including providing assistance to those who cannot afford attorneys and to those for whom access is difficult because of language, cultural, physical, or other barriers.

We have used technology to improve access in a number of ways. Access to computerized electronic court records broadens public and press ability to obtain up-to-date information on pending and past matters. The court system’s award-winning website, including a detailed Self-Help Center available in English and Spanish and in part in other languages, helps individuals navigate their way through the court system. The site provides information including how to obtain a domestic violence restraining order, local courthouse locations, press releases and requests for comment, recently filed appellate opinions, where to find legal assistance, and links to local and nationwide court websites and sources of relevant information — to mention only a small portion of the site’s services.

Courts across the state, as well as individual judges, also have reached out to the public and to the media to facilitate communications. The California Supreme Court, for example, has worked closely with the California Channel on broadcasting our special oral argument sessions held once a year in various special locations across the state. These programs, which involve the local bench, bar, and educational community, have proved to be very popular with the court, and have been a major hit with the local educational establishments and the local communities. The media in each location have been instrumental in informing the public about the program, the courts, and the cases that we hear.

Courts of appeal and superior courts similarly are employing innovative means to draw the public into the court process by taking the courts into the community. The response has been universally enthusiastic.

On an individual basis, I try to be available to the statewide media for interviews and meetings, and at the end of each year host a wide-ranging on-the-record discussion in my chambers with editors and reporters from around the state who cover the courts. I also have been interviewed on the radio by hosts such as Michael Krasny and Scott Schaefer. And along with many others from the courts, I have met with editorial boards and reporters from across the state.

Our contacts to date allow our system important opportunities to explain the Judicial Council’s initiatives aimed at improving the services our state courts provide to the public, to offer updates on California Supreme Court rulings, and to answer questions about the court system. They also offer an excellent opportunity for us to listen to the concerns of and problems encountered by the media. In short, these discussions flow in both directions and have led to changes in the practices and policies of California’s courts.

Many of you are aware of the progress that our state has made on media access issues, but I would like to provide you with a brief update of some of the relevant rules that the Judicial Council has adopted. Starting in 1976, cameras were allowed in courts on an experimental basis. After a careful review and public comment, the court adopted a rule in 1984 allowing cameras and other electronic equipment in California courtrooms at the discretion of the court.

Amended in 1997, the rule now requires judges to consider 18 factors in ruling upon such requests, including the importance of maintaining public access to the courtroom, preserving the privacy rights of the participants in the proceedings, and the effect of camera coverage on counsel’s ability to select an unbiased jury.

In 2006, this rule was amended again to include digital technologies such as camera cell phones. We are trying to keep abreast of new technologies, which sometimes seem to be cropping up faster than the rule-making process — or the human mind — can adapt. Perhaps I should note here that, as many of you have heard me say before, I consider myself road kill on the information highway. Nevertheless, I am keenly aware of some of the emerging potential benefits and pitfalls of these new tools.

Technology also has been important in improving access to court records. After six years of study, the Judicial Council expanded access to electronic court records in 2001 with a set of rules that sought to balance the right of public access with the privacy of individuals with online case records. I know that some persons wanted the courts to go further, to permit downloading of bulk files, but we are proceeding cautiously in light of the personal privacy interests involved.

We shall continue to monitor the situation, including the development of new tools for retrieving information. We also continue to work to standardize more on-line information and to obtain the necessary resources to enable courts statewide to effectively employ technology in all aspects of their work, including improving public access.

Because of the unique demands for information arising from several high profile trials in California, the Judicial Council also has amended its rules to allow criminal case records to be posted on special websites in high-publicity cases, with specified information redacted to meet privacy concerns.

The rules addressing these access issues remain a work in process. The courts are striving to meet the demands of a rapidly changing society, new technologies, and an expanding worldwide media market that embraces court news with an increasing appetite — while we still remain keenly aware of the importance of preserving a justice system guided by the rule of law rather than the pressure of public opinion.

Broader questions underlie all these efforts and our basic relationships. It is the nature of the news media to want to know and report all that is going on — and it is in the nature of the courts to be cautious because we require confidentiality in many spheres to properly perform our constitutional role. The courts sometimes may be too resistant to providing information. And the media sometimes want more information than the courts properly can — or should — provide. Nevertheless, there are many areas in which we can improve — both in terms of practical applications and of understanding each other’s interests.

The courts have been responsive in a number of areas, including decisions such as our Supreme Court’s 1999 ruling in NBC Subsidiary v. Superior Court, which I authored, holding that court proceedings should be open and may be closed only if the court makes certain specified findings.

The Judicial Council also has adopted rules on sealed records that state expressly that “Unless confidentiality is required by law, court records are presumed to be open.” Additionally, other rules are aimed at providing more transparency in administrative decision-making in the courts, a subject that I know is of interest to all of you.

The Judicial Council itself is committed to seeking broad input into its decision-making. Its meetings are open to the public and its agendas and meeting materials are made available on line and in hard copy. The Council seeks widespread public comment on its rules and its proposals, and its actions are broadcast through press releases as well as on-line, through our public information office.

As you discuss mutual concerns and look at how we can work together more effectively, I encourage you to keep in mind some basic values that I believe we all share.

Fair trials and free press issues are fundamental underpinnings in our democratic society. The best means for us to ensure their continued vitality will be to remain open to discussing new and emerging changes in technology, as well as changes in the functions and forms of the media and in the society we serve. All the while, we must remain committed to the shared values that shape our roles and our lives.

This is an exciting time to be part of the judicial system, whether as a judge, lawyer, or court administrator. And it is an exciting time to be part of the media — as traditional methods are coming face to face with developing technologies and budgetary constraints. We all are experiencing changes that often challenge our comfort level and ask us to rethink what is essential, what must be preserved, and what can and should be revised.

I hope this committee will take a leading role in easing the inevitable frictions that arise in areas where we intersect, and in cooperating in our mutual efforts to continue to provide the people of California with a strong and independent free press and an accessible system of justice.

Thank you again for being here today, and I look forward to your input on these important issues.

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