Public confidence in the judiciary has significantly decreased. According to a Gallup poll conducted last year, merely 25% of the public has “a great deal of confidence” in the Supreme Court. Furthermore, confidence in state courts has declined by nearly 20% in the last five years, according to the National Center for State Courts.
Berkeley Judicial Institute’s, or BJI’s, three-part webinar series “Judges and the Press” explored the importance of increasing trust in the legal system, discussing exactly why and how judges and journalists can work together to better educate the public.
“What’s unique about today is that people don’t know how the court system works,” said U.S. District Judge Marcia Krieger during the first session June 16. “They get their information off the Internet, TV or movies — and that’s not necessarily accurate.”
Alongside Krieger, the series featured a panel of experts: Executive Director of BJI Jeremy Fogel, retired U.S. Sixth Circuit Judge Bernice Donald, Reuters journalist Dan Levine and Public Affairs Specialist for the Administrative Office of U.S. Courts Charles Hall.
Denise Neary, director of judicial education at BJI, helped organize the series after observing a panel for judges from the Ninth Circuit, including Krieger.
“I have listened to Judge Krieger talk about the fact that she believes, and now I do too, that the public gets their information about trials, about courts, oftentimes through high profile cases,” Neary said. “And that it’s her belief that judges can ethically and responsibly help journalists get to know more about court proceedings.”
During session one, Krieger recounted a time in 2017 when she was on a small freighter in French Polynesia of approximately 100 passengers, most of whom were French-speaking. The only news source on the ship was CNN, and the Internet was not available to them “except by specific permission.”
Krieger also noted former President Trump said that he would impose a travel ban by executive order during her trip.
“Somebody in my group told other folks that I was a judge, and I had people surrounding my table at lunch and at dinner, saying: ‘What are we going to do? Are we going to get stopped at the border? Are we going to get excluded?’” Krieger said during the first session. “They were scared.”
After discovering a case had been filed requesting a preliminary injunction, Krieger decided to hold a class about preliminary injunctions on the ship.
She explained its elements, realizing that there was “an amazing change” in people’s perspective afterwards. One attendee, Krieger said, later told her they would still be afraid if it was not for her explanation.
“That’s what convinced me that we needed to educate the public as to the process because most people in the public are concerned about the outcome,” Krieger said. “They’re not concerned about process. And when you have faith in process, it’s easier to accept the uncertainty of an outcome.”
Although she worked to provide information about procedure in the courthouse, Krieger said many adults may not have time to go to such a presentation, or search the Internet for procedural matters. In these instances, Krieger said, they turn to high-profile cases.
On the other hand, according to Levine, for many journalists, it is hard to gain an understanding of the legal processes “in the heat of the high-profile cases.”
“It’s about building relationships over a longer term,” Levine said during the first session. “And that happens long before that high-profile case hits.”
Those relationships can help journalists understand the subtleties of litigation and the institutions involved in the processes, leading to more accurate reporting, according to Levine.
Yet, Hall said unlike the ‘80s and ‘90s, today few federal courts have a beat reporter, making it harder to form trusting relationships with judges.
“Opportunity simply to build trust on both sides is quite critical,” Hall said during the first session.
However, judges are prohibited from making a public comment on the merits of a matter pending or impending in any court, as stated in the Code of Conduct for U.S. Judges. Despite this, Fogel said there is still opportunity to work with the press, such as through explanations of court procedure or scholarly presentations.
In the first session, Levine also discussed how cases can be difficult for reporters to cover, especially when judges are reluctant to allow reporters in trials with confidential information. After challenging those decisions, Levine said knowing that the judge has “reviewed the documents and applied the law” is helpful in understanding the outcome.
“Finding strategies that serve the reporters is a key part of (letting the public in), because they will reach more people than the court itself can possibly accommodate,” Hall said during the first session.
The second and third sessions June 23 and 30 both focused on judge communication with the media in relation to ethical guidelines. Levine and Fogel, a journalist and judge, have had a 15-year long professional relationship, according to Hall.
Instead of talking about specific cases during their first meeting, Fogel said they simply got to know each other. Throughout the years, Levine said he would often check in with Fogel to ensure that his reporting was accurate.
“There’s a desire in both professions to get at the truth and figure out what the evidence points to and that kind of thing, but I think journalists and judges go about it differently,” Fogel said during the second session. “Having a better sense of what was going on in Dan’s world was very helpful to me, and I think it was probably true in the other direction as well.”
The two discussed the issue of transparency and records-sealing, the understanding of which allowed Levine to increase precision in his writing.
Further, Donald discussed how many judges are uncomfortable speaking with the press for reasons extending beyond a lack of trust.
“They relate to, I believe, a real concern that in the heat of the exchange there might be information that is misperceived by the journalist or perhaps that the judge might misspeak,” Donald said during the second session. “There may be sort of an incorrect interpretation, and then I can’t go back and change that.”
However, by building trusting relationships, Donald said those concerns “can be alleviated.” The series further delved into conducting interviews on background, when the conversation is off record and not quoted.
In the third session, the panel continued to speak on various ways courts could educate the public, including holding civic engagement activities. In the State of Minnesota v. Derek Chauvin case, the federal district court hosted a boot camp for journalists prior to the trial to explain procedural matters in the trial. According to Krieger, this ultimately led to higher quality reporting.
“The best journalism is journalism that contains context and nuance and that is often in conflict with the speed that we are expected to operate,” Levine said during the third session. “(Mistakes) are often casualties of speed that don’t serve readers or the community well.”
Ultimately, Neary said that judges and the press have many shared concerns — working together, she hopes they can better inform the public.