From The Editor
Bill Girdner
Story Date:   
Press Room

     In Federal Court in Los Angeles, one of the lawyers for Courthouse News compared the courtroom, with high ceilings, dark wood panels, heavy traditional furniture, to a museum.
     I answered that I always thought of the courtroom as a theater, where the actors in formal dress went to their marks and delivered their lines while a stern figure in robes looked on, a chorus decided and the quiet jokers of the press took notes.
     Having spent years in the press room in that courthouse, it was bracing to be out of the editor's office and back in a courtroom taking notes at a live hearing earlier this week, even more so where Courthouse News was a party.
     We had filed a complaint three years ago against the court clerk in Ventura over delays in access to the new actions that ran from a few days to weeks and on some big cases months. The complaint said that there was a longstanding tradition of press access to new filings at the end of the day.
     That tradition was inculcated into me in the very courthouse where we filed our complaint.
     Winding back in time to when I started out as a freelance journalist for the Herald Examiner in Los Angeles, I cast my eye around the old press room on the third floor - across from one of the jury rooms - with the L.A. Times in the back, the Daily Journal, United Press International (long since deceased), Copley News, City News Service by the door, the Orange County Register, my desk where I wrote the Central District Almanac and behind me the Daily News.
     The press room was a bustling place at the time and the Central District for some reason hosted a lot more national cases that it does now. I wound up writing regularly for the Boston Globe and the New York Times, mixing regional stories with breaking news coverage from the courthouse.
     One of the daily routines in the press room, besides a bunch of us going across the street to the decaying federal mall for lunch, was the late afternoon ritual of trooping two floors down to the clerk's office, via the fire stairs, to look over the stack of new civil complaints filed that day. The complaints were set on a long table, and journalists stood around it, looking through the new actions.
     That ritual wound up as part of the Central District Almanac where every two weeks I reported on district court trials and rulings, and, in the back, reported on the new actions.
     That back part was the result of a conversation with a former chief assistant in the U.S. attorney's office who, after going into private practice at Skadden, told me the L.A. Times had stopped reporting the new civil actions on its business page.
     A light bulb went off and soon enough, in addition to reporting the new cases every two weeks, I had a bought a fax machine that could send out the information every afternoon. Its 19-number memory was very quickly filled by major firms in Los Angeles, interested in that news.
     As our news service expanded to include courts in San Francisco then New York and then throughout the country, I found that in one court after another, the new civil filings were made available to the press at the end of the day. In federal courts in the Midwest, for example, a wooden box was set on the counter often with a label saying it was for the press, where new filings were put as the day went along.
     In the years since then, the tradition has come under attack by local bureaucrats, particularly in state courts. I have puzzled with our lawyers over what drives an administrator to cut off press access to the pleas of litigants in a great institution of open American democracy.
     The only theory that seems to match the animus behind a litany of justifications - security, short staff, the press should not be special - is that administrators feel like the documents are theirs to control, in a sense belong to them. Occasionally, you hear a clerk note that the clerk is a public servant, the courts are public institutions of American government, and their record is the public record.
     But not that often. And so we appeal to judges.
     In the matter of our action against Ventura, we were knocked out of court on a motion to dismiss. But that happened once already and Ninth Circuit judges reinstated the action, and it seems likely that three years on they will be looking at it again.

 
Coyote Speaks
Robert Kahn
Story Date:   
No Weather Today

     On my first day on the job, 26 years ago, George the city editor taught me how to edit a daily newspaper: news judgment, wire reports, layout, how to code headlines and so on - it took about 3 minutes.
     As a final thought, George said: "If you're busting deadline and you've got a news hole to fill, drop in a story about the weather. People always like to read about the weather."
     "Are you out of your mind?" I thought, fresh off the train from Hooterville. "I'm not going to drop in a story about the weather. I'm going to look for news!"
     Of course, George was right.
     I will read any story about the weather, at any time. Makes no difference where it is: China, Antarctica, Guinea-Bissau, Nebraska. Show me a story about extreme weather, and I will read that sucker and then think, "Huh." And then forget all about it.
     Same thing with a story about a hero dog. There is no way you can stop me from reading a story about a hero dog.
     I don't know why I am irresistibly drawn to stories like that, but I'll bet millions of other people are too.
     Look at the trashy tabloids, which sell jillions of copies of utter balderdash every week. These rags limit themselves to five subjects: sex, celebrities, weather, crime and death. Once in a while a fat person.
     Try to find a tabloid story about anything else. Politics doesn't count, because the tabs treat politics as celebrity - and if possible, as sex.
     Fear not. I am not about to launch into a diatribe about global warming. I'm not talking about global warming. I'm talking about weather.
     Here in Southern California we have no weather. It's too hot in the summer and nice in the winter. That's it. Oh, maybe seven days a year we'll get a little weather. We had some weather on Wednesday. Lightning crashed and it rained. Water fell out of the sky, if you can believe that. That's probably all the weather we'll have until November.
     Here's a weather story for you. It happened at that newspaper.
     When I edited the Sunday paper, the last thing I did every Saturday night was to put the weather box on Page 2. The weather box is a list, in alphabetical order, of high and low temperatures in cities around the nation and the world. The Associated Press sent the weather box over the wires at 11:50 p.m. every Saturday, in electronic coding.
     Don the news editor taught me how to edit the weather box.
     "If it's too long, and it will be, just delete a city every couple of lines until it fits. Don't delete a bunch in a row, or it'll be obvious. And don't delete Billings, Montana."
     "Why can't I delete Billings, Montana?" I asked.
     "Because we've got a subscriber whose daughter lives in Billings, and if you cut Billings, she'll call you up and give you hell."
     So I never deleted Billings. Here's what I did do, though.
     Because our newspaper assigned exactly one editor to work Saturdays, to put out the whole damn paper, it was a 12-hour shift, or worse. So by the time the weather box came in, I might be in a foul mood.
     I managed to look forward to it, though, because in addition to deleting Rio de Janeiro, Dakar and Melbourne, I made up a couple of cities and their weather every week, and put them in the paper.
     On a bad night, I would give the residents of Turtle Flats hell: 107 high and 92 low. Take that, you bastards. On a good night, I would invent a city and give it a wonderful day. Center City: high 82, low 57. No rain.
     True story. If you don't believe me, look in the newspaper.

 
From The Courts
Milt Policzer
Story Date:   
Emigration Control

     Is it fair to put a student up against a Department of Justice Senior Litigation Counsel in an argument before a federal appeals court?
     Of course it isn't.
     That Senior Litigation Counsel has no chance.
     Not only is the student more up-to-date on the law - he or she probably just got out of class - but the student is almost certainly better-looking.
     Case in point: Schnitzler v. United States of America from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, in which a "Student Counsel" argued the matter against a Senior Litigation Counsel.
     You know, of course, who won.
     We also learn in this ruling that the government not only tries to keep people from entering the United States, but also wants to keep people from leaving the United States.
     Or at least leaving citizenship.
     Why?
     I have no idea.
     And, strangely, no one seems to have questioned anyone's motives on either side of this fascinating dispute.
     Why ruin a perfect absurdity with explanations when you can litigate up through the appellate system?
     Here are the first two sentences of the ruling:
     "For reasons we do not understand, Aaron Schnitzler, a South Dakota state prisoner, wants to renounce his United States citizenship. For reasons the government has failed to explain - or rather, for a host of ever-changing reasons - it has made it impossible for him to do so."
     There's something seriously wrong with the discovery process here.
     This case - and a host of others - illustrates the need for a new legal concept: summary judgment against everyone.
     If a dispute is completely ridiculous and both parties appear to be insane, a judge should be able to declare a "no-contest" and find something better to do.
     Both sides, of course, will then be liable for attorney fees - payable to the court.
     And when the crazy people on both sides appeal and lose, there will be even more fees.
     The judicial financial crisis will be over.
     
     Non-Truth in Labeling: Speaking of people who just maybe shouldn't be suing, check out a ruling issued last week by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit, called Seiser v. City of Chicago.
     Here we find a Chicago police officer suing the city for wrongful arrest.
     That's not the weird part.
     This is the good part: He was arrested after being spotted on duty drinking from a bottle labeled "The liquor is in it."
     Then he objected to having to take a breathalyzer test and refused to turn over the bottle until he got a written order.
     This is a police officer setting an example for regular citizens to follow - i.e. don't cooperate unless you have to.
     His alcohol level turned out to be 0.00 and there was nothing but water in the bottle.
     He perhaps could have handed the bottle to the arresting officer and asked him to take a swig, but that would have been too easy. Rules are rules.
     Somebody was messing with somebody. My theory is that the plaintiff was seriously bored with his stakeout.
     This happened in 2011. A year later, he sued the city.
     Still bored.
     And in 2014 he has a 23-page federal appellate opinion saying he had no reason to sue.
     This guy will next be arrested for openly carrying a plastic toy Uzi while offering bags of powdered sugar to minors.